Wednesday, April 20, 2011

1949 Soup Box Derby Competition in Downtown Mooresville, Indiana (UPDATED)

The Library recently received a donation of an undated photograph of a Soup Box Derby competition, which was held in downtown Mooresville, Indiana.  (SOUP box?  Isn't it called "Soap Box Derby"?  Not this one--I'll explain presently.)  When and where did this event occur?  There are several suggestive clues in the photo.  Can you see them?

Undated Photograph Purported to be Downtown Mooresville, Indiana

A comparison to a more current photograph (see below) of downtown Mooresville enables us to positively identify the buildings in the picture above to be the south side of East Main Street, in downtown Mooresville.  So location is definitely nailed down; but what about time period?

The spectators' clothing and hairstyles are suggestive of the 1940s, although a small town such as Mooresville would have seen similar styles well into the late 1950s and early 1960s.  The businesses occupying various downtown buildings, all of which still stand today, are a solid method of establishing date ranges.  Knowing, for example, that, during the 1940s, Voelz & Son Market was located in the Jake Mann-constructed building shown in the photo is extremely helpful.  Mooresville Homes & Auto Supply was nearby Voelz during the late 1940s and into the 1950s.  So we may narrow our date range between, say, 1947 and 1952.

Fortunately, the MPL Indiana Room Collection has approximately 2,500 vertical files detailing local, county, and state history.  These files were assembled over the Library's 100 year history (and earlier, from information saved by thoughtful residents who later donated them to the Library).  The librarian most responsible for compiling and safeguarding these rare, irreplaceable historical materials was Wanda Potts, MPL Indiana Room Librarian (1966-2002), who was Assistant Director during the late 1970s and early 1980s.  Helping Wanda amass this historical gold mine were MPL Director Bonita Marley (1961-1984), her assistant, Myrtle Keller (1960s-1970s), and current MPL volunteer Beth Hensley.

Among our vertical files is one captioned "Soap Box Derby (Mooresville)," which includes a packet of undated photographs that include a smaller print of the photo above.  Happily, the packet is marked "1949 Soap Box Derby" (yes, the file tab and photo packet both say "soap box derby," but that's a mistake, as we will see shortly), and newspaper clippings from 1949-1950 reprinted some of these pictures contained in the packet.

Thanks to the resourcefulness of Wanda Potts and her colleagues, we may definitively date the donation photo above to the 1949 Soup Box Derby race.  We know from the newspaper clippings (Mooresville Times, July 7, 1949) that Bud Beasley, who drove the Gibbs Regal Store car, won the Class A Division.  (Gibbs Regal was a local grocery store at the time.)  The Class B Division title was captured by Larry Laudig.  Ray House, who was the timer at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, was the official starter for the Derby.  Beasley edged Laudig for the grand championship title.

Compare the 1949 photo above with a more recent picture (May 8, 2008) of the same section of downtown Mooresville (below).

A Portion of the South Side of East Main Street,
Downtown Mooresville, Indiana (May 8, 2008)

Soup or Soap?  Another Mystery

The Mooresville Times over the years used both "soap" and "soup" in articles about the races.  It was referred to as the "Soup Box Derby" in the July 7, 1949 edition.  The local newspaper referred to both the 1949 and 1950 races as "soup box derby" events (Mooresville Times, July 27, 1950).   Local reporters mentioned the "1953 Soup Box Derby" in a newspaper article (Mooresville Times, Aug. 6, 1953).

The 1934, 1935, and 1965 races, however, were identified as "Soap Box Derby" contests.  (Mooresville Times,  Aug. 6, 1934; Aug. 22, 1935; July 22, 1965).  So what's the difference?

Thanks to alert reader Larry Laudig, who won the 1949 Class B Division Title and was runnerup that year for the grand championship title, we know who "put the soup" in the derby racers.  As Mr. Laudig mentioned in our comments section, in 1949 Mooresville was running a local race that was not affiliated with the National Soap Box Derby competition.  The name was presumably trademarked, and so Mooresville officials changed their local event to the Soup Box Derby.  It is a catchy title, if you think about "souped up" (i.e., fast-running) cars.  "Souped up" was certainly a commonly used expression in the vernacular of the time period.

Based upon the newspaper accounts from 1950 and 1953, the races held during those years must also have been unaffiliated with the National Soap Box Derby, and so explains the name differential.

Careful reading of the newspaper clippings cited above also reveals why the 1934-1935 and 1965 races were called "Soap Box Derby."  The 8/6/1934 Times story stated that "Raymond Kerns, living about 3-1/2 miles southwest of Mooresville in the Bethseda neighborhood, won the Indianapolis All American Soap Box Derby."  The 7/22/1965 Times column said that Mark Marksbary, then a Mooresville High School sophomore, won the 28th annual Bloomington Soap Box Derby and competed in the national races.  One may presume that these events, held in Indianapolis and Bloomington, were affiliated with the national Soap Box Derby organization and therefore were permitted to use the "official" soap box derby name.

Many thanks to Mr. Laudig for alerting us to this important distinction!  We appreciate receiving first-hand knowledge of historical events, which we can then trace through the secondary source historical materials available at Mooresville Public Library (in the Indiana Room Collection) to assure that correct details are provided.


  1. I forgot to mention Brown's Rexall Drugstore in the far right side of the undated donation photo. That's another clue: Brown's was there from 1940s into the early 1970s.

  2. Mooresville could not have a Soap Box Derby race for that name was taken and we were not part of that national organization. Instead, Mooresville held a SOUP BOX DERBY. Except for that minor error the above fact finding is accurate.
    BTW - I was in the racer that is shown 2nd from the left. I could not race today (the weight limit of car+driver was 250 pounds) unless I was allowed to roll down the hill without a car. Larry Laudig (


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