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Famous Hoosier entrepreneurs
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Famous Hoosier entrepreneurs

Ralph Teetor

Ralph Teetor, a blind man, is credited with a number of automotive inventions, including cruise control.

Teetor, born Aug. 17, 1890, in Hagerstown, Indiana, was blinded at age 5 in an accident.

He was the president of The Perfect Circle Co., an automotive parts manufacturer.

After 10 years of experimentation, Teetor received his first patent on a speed control device in 1945. Chrysler finally used it in 1958. It was the industry standard until GM switched to a different mechanism in 1969.

Teetor’s other inventions included lock mechanisms and holders for fishing rods.

Teetor died on Feb. 15, 1982. He was posthumously inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 1988.

Madame C.J. Walker

Sarah Breedlove, who became famous as Madame C.J. Walker, was born Dec. 23, 1867, in Louisiana. She was an African American entrepreneur, philanthropist and activist who made her fortune by developing and marketing cosmetics and hair care products for black women.

Walker was called the first female self-made millionaire.

At her church in St. Louis, she noticed that she wasn’t the only black woman who suffered severe dandruff and other scalp irritations from the harsh products used to clean hair at the time.

After her marriage to Charles Walker in 1906, she became known as Madam C.J. Walker and sold her products door to door.

In 1910, she moved to Indianapolis, where she built a factory, hair salon, beauty school and laboratory. At the height of her career, she employed several thousand saleswomen.

Walker died on May 25, 1919. Her company’s headquarters has since been turned into the Madame Walker Theatre Center.

Elwood Haynes

Elwood Haynes believed himself to be the inventor of the gasoline-powered automobile, an honor historians could not bestow on him.

He is, however, considered an automotive pioneer and metallurgist. Haynes invented the metal alloys stellite and martensitic stainless steel as well as one of the earliest automobiles manufactured in the United States.

In Kokomo, he formed the first U.S. company to produce automobiles profitably.

His first car had its first successful road test on July 4, 1894, but that was eight years after a patent was granted in Germany for the first automobile.

Haynes was born Oct. 14, 1857, in Portland, Indiana. 

He bought a one-horsepower boat engine in 1893 and installed in a carriage he built in his kitchen. The damage to the kitchen didn’t please his wife, so he quickly arranged to continue his experiments in a more suitable shop.

The vehicle is considered to be the second gasoline-powered vehicle to be successfully tested in the United States. Charles Duryea beat Haynes to the honor of being the first.

During an auto race, Haynes was involved in what is believed to be the first automobile accident when he swerved to avoid a streetcar and damaged an axle after hitting a curb. Duryea bested him in that race, too.

Haynes was persuaded by his wife to build stainless steel silverware. He later claimed he invented it because he didn’t want to polish the silver utensils.

His automobile company suffered during the 1920s recession and was liquidated in 1925.

Haynes died April 13, 1925. His home in Kokomo is now the Elwood Haynes Museum.

Bill Blass

William “Bill” Blass was born in Fort Wayne on June 22, 1922. He went on to become one of the world’s premier fashion designers.

At age 15, he began sewing and selling evening gowns for $25 apiece to a New York manufacturer. At 18, he became the first male to win Mademoiselle’s Design for Living award.

He joined the Army in 1942 and was assigned to the 603rd Camouflage Battalion, which fooled the Germany Army into believing the Allies were stationed at false locations.

His New York fashion career began right after the war, in 1945. Over the decades, he designed menswear, women’s clothing, swimwear, furs, luggage, perfume and even chocolate.

Blass sold his company, Bill Blass Limited, to Michael Groveman in 1999. He died June 12, 2002, at age 79.


The fashion designer known to the world simply as Halston was born Roy Halston Frowick on April 23, 1932, in Des Moines, Iowa. He graduated from Benjamin Bosse High School in Evansville, Indiana.

In 1953, he opened his own hat business. Among his customers were Kim Novak, Gloria Swanson, Deborah Kerr and Hedda Hopper. In 1961, he achieved fame after designing the iconic pillbox hat Jacqueline Kennedy wore to her husband’s presidential inauguration.

When hats lost their cachet, he designed clothing. He is said to have popularized caftans, which he made for Jacqueline Kennedy.

He designed uniforms for Braniff Airways, the Pan American Games, U.S. Olympic team (1976), Girl Scouts, New York Police Department and Avis Rent a Car System.

He died March 26, 1990, at age 57.

Colonel Harland David Sanders

Colonel Harland David Sanders is known for creating the Kentucky Fried Chicken empire, but he was born a Hoosier. He was twice named an honorary Kentucky colonel.

Sanders was born Sept. 9, 1890, in Henryville, Indiana. During the Great Depression, he began selling fried chicken and other meals from his North Corbin, Kentucky, restaurant. The first Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise opened in Utah in 1952 and quickly spread across the United States and overseas.

Sanders sold his business to a group of investors in 1964 but remained a spokesman, traveling to restaurants for appearances and making commercials.

He died Dec. 16, 1980, but his persona lives on in KFC’s logo. Comedian Jim Gaffigan, a Chesterton native, is among the actors who have portrayed Sanders in KFC commercials.

Eli Lilly

Eli Lilly founded a pharmaceutical company that today is the largest corporation in Indiana and among the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world. He was also a Civil War hero and a prominent philanthropist.

Lilly was born July 8, 1838, in Baltimore, Maryland. In 1854, at age 16, he began a four-year apprenticeship with Henry Lawrence’s Good Samaritan Drug Store in Lafayette, Indiana, where he learned chemistry and pharmacy. He opened his own drugstore in 1861 in Greencastle, shortly before enlisting in the Union Army just before the start of the Civil War.

In 1862, Lilly recruited volunteers for the 18th Battery, Indiana Light Artillery. During the war, Lilly was ultimately promoted to colonel. His unit fought in several important battles. He served as chairman of the Grand Army of the Republic, a veterans organization, in 1893.

In 1876, Lilly opened his own drug manufacturing operation in Indianapolis.

His first invention was gelatin-coated pills and capsules, then fruit flavorings and pills coated with sugar, to make the medicine easier to swallow.

Lilly was committed to producing high-quality prescription drugs and favored federal regulation of the industry at a time when patent medicine was often ineffective.

In 1881, he formally incorporated Eli Lilly and Co.

He was a prolific donor to charities and helped organize the Charity Organization Society, which functioned much like today’s United Way.

Lilly died June 6, 1898.

Carl G. Fisher

Carl G. Fisher, an automotive pioneer, was the driving force behind the Lincoln Highway and the Dixie Highway.

Fisher was born Jan. 12, 1874, in Greensburg, Indiana. In 1804, Fisher and James A. Allison invested in a manufacturer of acetylene headlights, soon supplying nearly every headlight used on U.S. automobiles. Fisher and Allison sold Prest-O-Lite to Union Carbide in 1913 and became millionaires.

Fisher operated in Indianapolis what is believed to be the first automobile dealership in the United States. His interest in auto racing led to development of paved racetracks and roads. He was an investor in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and introduced the 3.2 million-brick improvement that resulted in its nickname of “The Brickyard.”

The Lincoln Highway was the first east-west transcontinental highway. The north-south Dixie Highway went all the way to Miami, where he helped develop Miami Beach.

Fisher had an estimated worth of $100 million in the mid-1920s but lost his fortune during the Great Depression.

Fisher was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 1971.

Studebaker Brothers

The Studebaker name is well known throughout Indiana and among auto enthusiasts, but especially in South Bend.

Studebaker Brothers Manufacturing Co. was founded in 1852, building wagons for farmers, miners and the military.

The five sons who founded the company were Henry (1826-1895), Clement (1831-1901), John (1833-1917), Peter (1836-1897) and Jacob (1844-1887).

The Civil War created demand for war wagons. The available of railroads for shipping wagons also helped boost sales.

The wagons pulled by the Budweiser Clydesdales are Studebaker wagons manufactured around 1900.

Among the brothers, Clement and Henry became blacksmiths and foundry men in South Bend in 1852. John was making wheelbarrows in Placerville, California, and earned enough to buy out Henry’s share of the business in 1857. Henry was deeply religious and objected to building military equipment. Peter was running a general store in Goshen, Indiana, which expanded in 1860 to include a wagon dealership. Jacob, the youngest brother, was put in charge of the carriage factory in 1875, when the factory was rebuilt in solid brick following a fire in 1874 that destroyed two-thirds of the plant.

Before the last brother died in 1917, Studebaker had begun making horseless carriages. Its auto proving ground is now Bendix Woods County Park. The flagship plant in South Bend closed in 1963, followed by the Hamilton, Ontario, plant in 1966.

Ball Brothers

The Ball brothers whose business became known for its home canning jars were Lucius (1850-1932), William (1852-1921), Edmund (1855-1925), Frank1857-1943) and George (1862-1955).

Frank and Edmund formed the Ball brothers business in 1880 in Buffalo, New York. Their brothers soon joined them. In 1887, the brothers moved their manufacturing plan to Muncie, to be near what at the time was an abundant supply of natural gas.

Over time their jars became very popular for home canning. The Hoosier Slide, a former Michigan City tourist attraction, was mined for blue jars. By the 1960s, the company had branched out into the aerospace business, then plastic and metal food and beverage containers.

The Ball brothers’ corporation was so successful that they became avid philanthropists. The Ball brothers gave money to establish local YMCA and YWCA branches, Ball Memorial Hospital, Ball State University and more.

Tony Hulman

Anton “Tony” Hulman Jr. was known for his connection to the Indianapolis 500. He roared it back to life after World War II, when the race was on hold for four years, and made the track famous around the world.

Hulman was born Feb. 11, 1901, in Terre Haute. At age 17, he served with the American Red Cross Ambulance Corps during World War I. In 1924, he returned to Terre Haute to work at the family business, Hulman & Co. His first project was the Clabber Girl baking powder ad campaign, giving the product national attention. By age 30, he had taken over management of the company.

He is best known, however, for taking over the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and making a number of improvements before the 1946 race. Wilbur Shaw, who won the Indy 500 three times, was the president early in Hulman’s tenure, but Hulman stepped in after Shaw’s death in 1954. He began each race with, “Gentlemen, start your engines!”

Hulman’s other business interests included a string of newspapers, radio and television stations, real estate and Coca-Cola bottling plants.

Hulman’s philanthropic interests included higher education. His generosity prompted Rose Polytechnic Institute to be renamed Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in 1971.

Hulman died Oct. 27, 1977. He was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1991 and the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1990.

Vivian Carter

Vivian Carter, a disc jockey in Gary and Chicago, launched Vee-Jay Records, the first successful African American-owned record company in the nation.

Carter was born March 25, 1921, in Tunica, Mississippi, and moved to Gary when she was a youngster. She graduated from Roosevelt High School in 1939.

She met her future husband and business partner, Jimmy Bracken, in 1944. Together, they founded Vee-Jay which featured music from R&B and other artists in the 1950s and 1960s.

Between 1953 and 1966, when it went closed, Vee-Jay produced records by the Spaniels, the Dells, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Eldorados, Hoyt Axton, the Four Seasons, John Lee Hooker, Gene Chandler and others.

Among the record label’s clams to fame is being the first American company to produce a Beatles record, selling 2.6 million Beatles singles in one month alone in 1964.

Carter died June 12, 1989.


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