Biography of carl g. fisher local news greensburgdailynews.com gas works park

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“Carl Fisher did not live the American dream – he made the American dream. The dirt-poor Indiana boy built his dreams into vast fortunes, and nothing was impossible to Carl G. Fisher. He had the vision to see, the daring plan, and the courage to build,” said Miami Herald special contributor Howard Kleinberg in “The Pacesetter,” a book by Fisher’s cousin, Jerry Fisher.

Overlooked and forgotten by the editors of “Who’s Who,” Carl Fisher was a practical visionary who created the Lincoln Highway, the nation’s first transcontinental road, built the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, developed Miami Beach, created the Dixie Highway, and built Montauk, New York – known as the Miami Beach of the North. He was called the P.T. Barnum of real estate. Will Rogers called him the “mid-wife of Florida,” and Carl and his wife, Jane, were called the “King and Queen” of Miami Beach.

Carl Graham Fisher was born in Greensburg, Indiana, on Jan. 12, 1884, to Ida and Albert Fisher, in a house near the intersection of Broadway and North Streets. He did not do well in school because of poor vision and dropped out at twelve years of age. His severe astigmatism was not corrected until he was in his early thirties.

Ida divorced Albert, whose intemperate life style had taken his family to near poverty, and she moved her family to Indianapolis. Carl, who was at twelve years of age the oldest of three sons, determined to do all he could to support his family. He started by selling peanuts, candy, books and magazines on the railroad. He later said he developed his salesmanship skills during this time. He worked in a bookstore where he could satisfy his desire to read. Working in a bank introduced him to finances, but it was the high-wheel bicycle that really started him on his successful career in business.

Carl and his two brothers, Earl and Robert “Rolla,” were excellent mechanics, and the bicycle shop on Pennsylvania Street was successful. Soon realizing there was no contest between the bicycle and the automobile, he converted his shop into an auto dealership – probably the first in the country. Fisher looked for a place to expand and chose two blocks on North Capitol Boulevard, where he sold a variety of automobiles. His hard work and marketing skills again resulted in success.

In 1904, Fisher and Jim Allison bought a patent for $2,000 and developed a compressed acetylene gas cylinder for the first successful automobile headlight and formed the “Prest-O-Lite” Company. Nine years later, they sold their company for nine million dollars to Union Carbide, which wanted the cylinder for welding and medical gases.

Years of selling and racing cars had taught Fisher that the quality of American cars was poor and racing was extremely dangerous. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway was the result of Fisher putting his enthusiasm, money, and talent into developing the track for testing and racing. Early reviews were not good due to the track surface, but once it was paved, its success was beyond his expectations.

Fisher’s international travels had convinced him that this country’s roads were few and inferior. He began to dream of a hard surface road across America. The drive for a “Coast to Coast Rock Highway” was presented to leading businessmen of the Mid-West in September 1912. In thirty days, one million dollars of the expected ten million required was pledged. While the full amount was never realized, construction proceeded and with the financial and organizational talents of Henry B. Joy, President of the Packard Motor Car Company and others, the road was completed.

It was typical of Fisher to step aside after originating the idea. As Jerry Fisher wrote in his preface: “…the American nation has never identified or recognized the man who had so radically changed it. Perhaps that was Fisher’s own fault for not promoting himself. Nothing prevented him from founding the Fisher Speedway or Fisher Beach or Fisher Highway, but that was not his style even when others wanted him to do so. For Fisher, the project was always more important than his particular role in it. Worldly honor was without meaning to Carl. Working, building, and dreaming were his only values.”

Roads to Florida and within the state had been deteriorating ever since the Civil War. Carl, realizing that his success in developing Miami Beach required good roads, conceived the idea of the Dixie Highway from Canada to Miami. With states along the route vying to be included, as they did for the Lincoln Highway, work was soon underway. The 1916-1917 winter season was financially the best ever for Carl because WW I brought tourists who would have otherwise gone to Europe. The boom continued and in 1925, Fisher’s fortune was immense.

His Montauk Beach Development Co. built stables, polo grounds, beach-front board walks, theatres, a church, the Montauk Yacht Club, the Montauk Club, the Montauk Manor – a hotel second to none – entire city blocks of expensive dwellings, and a six-story office building topped with his personal penthouse. An exorbitant amount of money was spent, but sales were slow.

On Sept. 17, 1926, a severe hurricane destroyed most of Miami Beach. Fisher put Montauk on hold in order to rescue his dream city of Miami Beach, and the New York project slipped into financial oblivion. With the Wall Street crash of 1929, what was left of his financial empire was gone.

On Friday, July 14, 1939, Fisher passed away in Miami Beach. After an impressive funeral attended by many dignitaries, his body was sent to Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis for internment in his mausoleum, ironically the only property he still owned in the city.

Joe Westhafer is a lifelong resident of Greensburg. He is a graduate of Greensburg High School and Florida State University. He wrote this biography of Carl Fisher for the 2010 Historical Society Winter Bulletin. A memorial marker in honor of Carl Fisher will be placed on the Historical Society Museum property at a later date.