Kokomo is a city in and the county seat of Howard County, Indiana, United States. Kokomo is Indiana's 13th-largest city. It is the principal city of the Kokomo, Indiana Metropolitan Statistical Area, which includes all of Howard and Tipton counties. Kokomo's population was 46,113 at the 2000 census, and 45,468 at the 2010 census. On January 1, 2012, Kokomo successfully annexed more than on the south and west sides of the city, including Alto and Indian Heights, increasing the city's population to nearly 57,000 people.
Named for the Native American Ma-Ko-Ko-Mo who was called "Chief Kokomo", Kokomo first benefited from the legal business associated with being the county seat. Before the Civil War, it was connected with Indianapolis and then the Eastern cities by railroad, which resulted in sustained growth. Substantial growth came after the discovery of large natural gas reserves, which produced a boom in the mid-1880s. Among the businesses which the boom attracted was the fledgling automobile industry. A significant number of technical and engineering innovations were developed in Kokomo, particularly in automobile production, and, as a result, Kokomo became known as the "City of Firsts." A substantial portion of Kokomo's employment still depends on the automobile industry.
Early history and incorporation
The settler tradition says Kokomo was named for Kokomoko or Ma-Ko-Ko-Mo (meaning “black walnut”), shortened to Kokomo, said to have been one of the four sons of Chief Richardville, last of the chiefs of the Miamis. Folklore holds that he was tall and falsely gives him the title of "chief." David Foster, known as the "Father of Kokomo," claimed that he named the town Kokomo after the "ornriest Indian on earth" because Kokomo was "the ornriest town on earth." Kokomo is thought to have been born in 1775 and died in 1838. The only documentary proof of his existence is a trading post record of a purchase of a barrel of flour for $12 for his "squaw." His remains (with those of others) were reportedly discovered during the construction of a saw mill in 1848 and reinterred in the "north-east corner" of the Pioneer Cemetery. The tradition of the Peru Miami is that the town was named after a Thorntown Miami named Ko-kah-mah, whose name is rendered Co-come-wah in the Treaty at the Forks of the Wabash in 1834. That name was translated as "the diver" (an animal that could swim under water).
Shortly after Richardville County was organized in 1844 the commissioners appointed to establish the county seat approached Foster for a donation from his substantial holdings. (In 1846 tax records show that he owned of farmland and as well as 67 divided lots in the business district.) At the time of the request the only improvements in what is now Kokomo were Foster's log house and log barn and several Miami huts. The commissioners sought a donation of the more fertile lands south of Wildcat Creek, but Foster refused, donating instead north of the creek—land which was thickly forested and "swampy." The terms of the donation required that Foster build a courthouse on the land, but he was later excused and Rufus L. Blowers was promised $28 to build it. He was penalized $2 for construction delays. The log courthouse was completed in 1845.
In June 1855 Henry A. Brouse petitioned the board of Howard county commissioners to incorporate the town of Kokomo. The original election was not held (for unspecified reasons), but another took place on October 1, 1855. After a vote of 62–3 in favor of incorporation, the board so ordered it.
On March 31, 1865, an election was held for Kokomo to assume a city government. The resolution was passed, and Nelson Purdum was elected the first mayor.
In anticipation of business that the court would bring, Kokomo began a fairly quick growth from the time that lots were first sold on October 18, 1844. David Foster was granted the first license to sell merchandise in Kokomo at the December 1844 commissioners meeting. Two more merchants were licensed in March 1845. John Bohan, who would become a major shop owner, merchant, justice of the peace and investor, moved to Kokomo in December 1844, and erected the first two story frame house, not only in Kokomo, but in all the county.
After the enactment of the 1846 pre-emption law, settlers rapidly attempted to secure homesteads in the surrounding lands.
In 1848 Stonebreakers Mill, west of Kokomo, began operations. By 1850 Kokomo had a newspaper, when James Beard purchased the printing equipment of the New London Pioneer and set up the Howard Tribune. By 1851 county business was so brisk that the county ordered the construction of two more court buildings, both one story brick affairs, . The county auditor and treasurer occupied one building, and the clerk and recorder occupied the other.
On April 1, 1854, Kokomo’s first bank, the Indian Reserve Bank, was organized with David Foster, John Bohan and Harless Ashly the principal shareholders. (It only lasted a few years until a robbery impaired its capital. The loss substantially injured Foster’s fortune.)
The year 1854 saw the first railroad stop at Kokomo. The New London Pioneer had long advocated for a rail line to connect Kokomo with Indianapolis. Colonel C.D. Murray was the agent at Kokomo for stock subscriptions in support of the railroad. In 1852 the construction of the Peru and Indianapolis Railroad commenced. In Kokomo Samuel C. Mills and Dr. Corydon Richmond, commercial competitors of David Foster, donated several lots to the railroad in order to secure the location of the rail depot near their commercial property. The route was laid along Buckeye Street at the insistence of the merchants who hoped to reduced drayage expenses. Samuel Mills built a large frame structure at the Howard flouring mills, which served as a warehouse for the company's freight and a passenger depot. For some time after 1854 Kokomo was the terminus of the line, but eventually the line was extended to Peru and then to Michigan City.
A short time after the construction of the Peru and Indianapolis Railroad began, the Pennsylvania Railroad announced that one of its lines would pass through Kokomo. By 1853 a line was commenced between Kokomo and Logansport (which was intended to become the hub of a network of lines for the company). Railroad service was inaugurated on that line on July 4, 1855.
The most important rail line for Kokomo became the standard-gauge line Clover Leaf line. This railroad would eventually link Kokomo with both the West Coast and the Eastern Seaboard. It began as a short line linking Frankfort and Kokomo, the Frankfort and Kokomo Railroad. Henry Y. Morrison of Frankfort was the principal promoter, and A.Y. Comstock acted for him in Kokomo. A failure of the proposed subsidy caused the promoters to turn all assets over to the contractors, who promised to complete the line. Construction began in 1873 and was completed the following year. Limited freight between the two cities made the line unprofitable. After a series of acquisitions by other railroads, the line became part of the Toledo, St. Louis and Kansas City Railroad. A line connecting it to the east reached Kokomo on January 1, 1881.
In 1881, one of the most remarkable and controversial events in Kokomo’s history took place. Mayor Henry C. Cole was shot to death by a sheriff’s posse. Dr. Cole had a curious history and had stirred up a great deal of passion in the previous fifteen years. He was reputed to have been a gifted surgeon, who served in the Union Army during the Civil War and when afterwards he settled in Kokomo, he became a prominent physician. In Kokomo he married a woman, Natalie Cole, of whom he became intensely jealous. He became suspicious of one Allen, whom he warned away from Kokomo. When he discovered Allen leaving the post office one day in October 1866, he shot him dead. The fact that the killing both took place in broad daylight and showed cold-blooded rage (Cole continued shooting after Allen was down) caused the crime to receive national attention. Cole’s case was venued to Tipton County, where he retained Daniel W. Voorhees of Terre Haute to represent him. Voorhees obtained a not guilty verdict on a plea of emotional insanity. Cole divorced his wife thereafter.
Cole’s reputation for violent instability, and the cowardice in the way he killed Allen, created many enemies for him, but his generosity toward poor patients and a promise to “clean up” the town won him enough support to win a bitter election for Mayor in 1881. Shortly thereafter, on September 19, 1881, he was shot dead by a sheriff’s posse at Old Spring Mills at West Jefferson Street. According to the coroner’s inquest, he died from shotgun wounds inflicted by Deputy George Bennett (father of New York stage idol Richard Bennett). The sheriff claimed that an informant had advised him that Cole was planning to rob a flour mill, possibly to incriminate his enemies. The posse was forced to fire on Cole in self-defense (the sheriff claimed he had two revolvers) and to prevent his escape, although his injuries seemed inconsistent with that version. Cole’s supporter’s argued that no revolvers or burglary tools were produced and that the motive was implausible. Nevertheless, no action was taken against Bennett or others of the posse.
Natural gas boom
Natural gas had been developed in Pennsylvania and Canada for some time, and had most recently been developed around Findlay, Ohio. In March 1886, a group of citizens, led principally by A.Y. Comstock (who had promoted the Frankfort and Kokomo Railroad) and D.C. Spraker (later President of Kokomo Rubber Company), circulated a memorandum seeking subscribers (at $100 each) for the purpose of boring for gas at a distance of at least below ground. It took until September to obtain the necessary 22 subscribers. The first rig was built south of Wildcat Creek. and on October 6, 1886, natural gas erupted forth and the well was capped.
Together with the well in Eaton, which began producing slightly before Kokomo’s, the discovery led to the Indiana Gas Boom. This discovery was directly responsible for Elwood Haynes' move to Kokomo, who was a superintendent with a gas company with interests in Kokomo and Howard County. The Diamond Plate Glass Company (now part of PPG Industries) began in Kokomo in 1887, lured by the cheap and plentiful natural gas. The Kokomo Opalescent Glass Works started making stained glass in Kokomo in 1888 and has been in continuous operation ever since.
"City of Firsts"
As a result of the natural gas boom, Kokomo attracted an increasing number of industries, which resulted in significant technological innovations. For these industrial and technical achievements, Kokomo is officially known as the "City of Firsts." Among other achievements, Kokomo was a pioneer of the United States automobile manufacturing, with Elwood Haynes test-driving his early internal combustion engine auto there on July 4, 1894. Haynes and his associates built a number of other autos over the next few years; the Haynes-Apperson Automobile Company for mass-production of commercial autos was established in Kokomo in 1898. Haynes went on to invent Stainless Steel flatware in 1912 to give his wife tarnish-free dinnerware. In 1938, the Delco Radio Division of General Motors (now Delphi) developed the first push button car radio.
Kokomo serves as the "City of Firsts" in the food industry as well. In 1928 Walter Kemp, Kemp Brothers Canning Co. developed the first canned tomato juice because of a request by a physician in search for baby food for his clinic. Kokomo is also home to the first mechanical corn picker which was developed by a man named John Powell in the early 1920s. Kokomo was home to the first Ponderosa Steakhouse, which opened in 1965. Kokomo opened the first McDonald's with a diner inside, locally called "McDiner." This McDonald's theme failed nationally. Eventually, the "McDiner" closed and was converted back to a regular McDonald's restaurant.
The following inventions are associated with Kokomo:
On March 21–26, 1913 Kokomo suffered severe flooding when of rainfall occurred. The Kokomo Tribune reported at the time that the Wildcat Creek overtopped its levee to reach nearly wide after rising at a rate of per hour. Damage was widespread, including loss of electrical power due to the power plant being flooded. On March 26, flooding was declared over after the water level dropped in a 24-hour period.
Ku Klux Klan
On July 4, 1923, Kokomo achieved national notoriety when it hosted the largest Ku Klux Klan gathering in history. An estimated 200,000 Klan members and supporters gathered in Malfalfa Park for a mighty Konklave and the elevation of D. C. Stephenson to Grand Dragon of the Indiana Klan. A huge flag was used that day to collect a reported $50,000 for construction of a local “Klan hospital” so that Klan members would not have to be treated at the only local hospital, which was Catholic. At that time Indiana was a Klan stronghold, and as many as 50 percent of white males in parts of Indiana were Klan members. Both men’s and women’s Klans held weekly rallies and initiations in Malfalfa Park, and Kokomo’s Klanswomen held meetings at the armory, the local headquarters of the Women of the Ku Klux Klan, and churches. A speech at a Baptist church was attended by 1000 Klanswomen.
On April 11, 1965 the southern part of Kokomo was struck by one of the 47 tornadoes that erupted over six Midwestern states, an event now known as the Palm Sunday Tornado Outbreak. The F4 tornado that swept through Kokomo was wide and killed 25 people in the surrounding area. Significant damage was done to the Chrysler transmission plant. Windows were broken and the framework cracked throughout, and sections of the west wall were leveled. The Maple Crest elementary and junior high schools suffered extensive damage. The roof collapsed on the junior high school, and the framework of both schools was substantially wrecked. The Maple Crest Shell Station at the intersection of Lincoln and Washington was torn from its foundation and scattered about. Mills Drug Store at the same intersection was demolished. A house on Holly Lane was uprooted, and one on James Drive was demolished. The Maple Crest Shopping Center was extensively damaged, with Woolworth's suffering the most damage. The front and back of the one-story structure were caved in and merchandise was strewn about. Numerous homes in the Maple Crest area were flattened, and the top floor of the Maple Crest apartments was blown off. The only thing left standing on the nearby Church of the Brethren was the steeple. The force of the wind on the flat earth near Kokomo was so great that Ted Fujita was able to make aerial photographs of the spiral scoring on the ground.
Kokomo served to symbolize the nation's early misunderstanding and ignorance of AIDS in the mid-to-late 1980s when Ryan White was expelled from school due to his illness. White was a teenage hemophiliac who had been accidentally infected with HIV during a medical procedure. The teen had been attending Western Middle School (which is actually in Russiaville) but was ostracized by his classmates, and forced to eat lunch alone and use a separate restroom. Many parents and teachers in Kokomo rallied in support of banning White from attending the school. A lengthy legal battle with the school system ensued, followed by death threats and violence against White and his family, including a bullet being fired through the window of their Kokomo home. Media coverage of the case made White into a national celebrity and spokesman for AIDS research and public education. In 1987, the White family left Kokomo for Cicero, Indiana, where Ryan attended Hamilton Heights High School, and was welcomed by faculty and students who had been educated about the disease.
The Kokomo Gas Tower had been a symbol of Kokomo since it was constructed in 1954. The tower was tall and had a capacity of . Due to high maintenance costs of $75,000 a year, and up to $1,000,000 to paint it, the gas company decided to demolish it in 2003. Other ideas were reviewed before settling on this decision, including a plan to turn the tower into a giant Coca-Cola advertisement. On September 7, 2003, at approximately 7:30 a.m., the Gas Tower was demolished by Controlled Demolition, Inc. (CDI). Pieces of the tower were sold to the public for $20–30, and proceeds went to a planned Kokomo technology incubation center and Bona Vista.