From Spirits to Spirals: 1964–1982
When Mildred Compton took the reins from Grace Golden and became director of The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis in June 1964, she was well prepared. A former researcher for Eli Lilly and Company, as well as a past president of The Children’s Museum Guild, Compton had worked as her predecessor’s troubleshooter, taking care of administrative and operational problems throughout the museum.
The First Haunted House
With a past in the corporate world, Compton was interested in applying relevant business practices to the museum’s operations. One such practice was to look for diverse sources of revenue to help pay the museum’s operating costs. The Guild had a potentially lucrative revenue idea that Compton agreed was worth testing—a haunted house.
Making its debut on Oct. 22, 1964, the Guild’s Haunted House was an immediate success. Located on the second floor of the Dreyer Building, it attracted long lines of children and adults eager to be scared by the spirits within. By the end of the Haunted House’s 10-day run, the Guild had raised $13,200 for the museum, significantly more than any of the Guild’s other fundraising events had tallied. Such a performance earned the event the right to be held annually, as it has been up to the present.
First Science Gallery
With both bachelor and master’s degrees in chemistry, Compton was naturally more interested in the physical sciences than either of the previous directors had been. After careful planning, the museum opened its first dedicated science gallery in 1967, with Compton making sure it was allied with the museum’s original mission to be “interesting and informative.” So successful was the new gallery that it became the model for future forays into science, which would include exhibits on astronomy and space travel, medicine and health, and environmental issues, as well as ever-larger science galleries.
Expanding the Site
Expanding the museum’s purview was only one of Compton’s achievements. Another significant contribution was the expansion of its physical boundaries, which she accomplished with the help of attorney and former board president John G. Rauch Jr. Together they managed to negotiate the donation and purchase of real estate to the north and west of the museum, giving it ownership of a square block of buildings and land.
The Reuben Wells and Toy Trains Collection
With more space came more room for growth—and more room to display the objects such as the Reuben Wells, a 55-ton steam locomotive. A powerhouse that from 1868 to 1899 pushed railroad cars up the steepest stretch of mainline track in America (on hill outside Madison, Indiana), the Reuben Wells was gathering dust in a storage building in Pennsylvania when it was discovered by Tom Billings in 1966. Chairman of the museum’s advisory board, Billings was also an avid fan of trains, so he was delighted to find the locomotive intact. Once displayed at Purdue University and at the Indiana State Fair, the locomotive had been in storage for several years and was in need of an overhaul, but Billings knew it would make a great addition to the museum’s collection.
In May 1967 the Pennsylvania Railroad, which owned the Reuben Wells, agreed to loan it to the museum indefinitely at a cost of $1 per year. After sprucing up the 100-year-old locomotive (which was named for the man who designed it), the railroad shipped it and a companion tool car by train to Indianapolis in May 1968. Trucks then carefully hauled the two pieces of railroad history to the museum where they were installed in a specially built pole barn at the rear of the neighboring Rauh Memorial Library, a branch of the Indianapolis Public Library.
The Reuben Wells became the catalyst for another significant addition to the museum’s collection—Noble Biddinger’s large toy train collection. A local investment banker, Biddinger had been collecting trains for 20 years by the time former board president Jack Rauch Jr. suggested that the museum would be a great home for the collection if he ever decided to part with it. Biddinger agreed and the museum refurbished the garage behind the Rauh Library to house an 18-by-24-foot layout featuring eight operating trains. From the day it opened in June 1970 the new gallery was a hit. Four years later another collector named Robert Vickers donated his collection of toy trains, which totaled more than 1,000 locomotives, cars, and accessories.
First AAM Accreditation
In addition to expanding the collection, Compton also led the museum’s effort to be among the first in the country to be accredited under guidelines established by the American Association of Museums in 1970. The following year—the first in which the new accreditation program took effect—The Children’s Museum became the first in Indianapolis and one of the first two dozen museums in the United States to be accredited. While its new status didn’t change much from a visitor’s standpoint, it gave the museum a level of professional credibility and merit among its peers, as well as with foundations, government agencies, and other grant-making organizations.
A New, Dedicated Museum Building
The issue of grants and other monetary donations became significant in 1971 when the museum’s trustees agreed to an ambitious plan to raise $7 million to construct an entirely new facility. With the help of national fundraising firm Ketchum, Inc. and support from such generous donors as Lilly Endowment Inc. (which gave $3.5 million, the largest single grant it had ever made at that point), Eli and Ruth Lilly (who gave $1 million each), and the Krannert Charitable Trust ($1 million), the museum actually raised $8.8 million, including many small donations from children, families, and teachers.
That generosity allowed the museum to build a new facility from the ground up, a process that included tearing down the Parry house and all of the additions that the museum had made to it over the years, and the Rauh Memorial Library. But when the 1976 museum building—a modern structure designed by the Indianapolis architectural firm Wright, Porteous, & Lowe—opened on Oct. 2, it marked a turning point for the museum. No longer was it housed in a cobbled-together cluster of structures, but in a modern, well-designed, five-story museum-quality building centered around a wide spiraling ramp that allowed for an easy flow of visitors from the Lower Level to Level 4.
Enticing people to Level 4 was a Dentzel Carousel from 1917. Once a fixture in Broad Ripple Park on the city’s north side, the Carousel was owned by the Indianapolis Parks Department, which had pieces of it stored in various places. Curious about what had happened to it, Compton managed to track down the scattered pieces, have the Carousel restored to working condition, and convince the architects to make room for it in the new building. It was installed on Level 4 where a girder could be removed to make room as there were no upper floors to support.
One of the museum’s star attractions came along in 1976 when workers digging a pond on a farm near Greenfield, Indiana, uncovered some large bones. They were part of the remains of a 10,000- to 12,000-year-old mastodon! Over the next three years more than 100 museum volunteers helped excavate the bones of two mastodons from the farm. One was more than 70 percent intact, which allowed archaeologists to cast the remainder of the bones in polyester resin and reassemble the skeleton. Going on display at the museum in 1980, the mastodon continues to be popular with visitors. It is currently on Level 4.
When she retired in 1982, Compton left a legacy of intelligent management, skillful expansion of the museum’s collection, and unrivaled dedication to providing visitors with memorable experiences. On her watch The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis continued to gain ground on its march into the top tier of American museums while maintaining its identity as one of the city’s most popular cultural attractions.