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May 24, 2018

Asa P. Robertson, Noblesville Maker

Asa P. Robertson, Noblesville Maker

By: David Heighway, Hamilton County Historian

With the 500 mile race just around the corner and the opening of Ignite, the new maker’s space at the Fishers Library, I thought I would look at a local maker who built his own automobiles, Asa P. Robertson.  Asa was a mechanic and inventor who was born in 1872 to George and Sarah Robertson.  His brother Murray, who would share some mechanical activities, was born two years later.  He also had an older brother Charles and a younger brother Ralph.

The family lived various places in Indiana and George was listed as a machinist in the 1880 census.  The family moved to Noblesville in 1891, which is when we perhaps first hear of Asa.   In July, an assistant named Robertson who was working at the Hare buggy factory was slightly injured in the forehead when a sledge hammer rebounded from an anvil.

He was a member of Noblesville’s “Racy Bicycle Club” by 1894, and he and Murray would have parties for the club at their home on 143 East Conner Street (today 1335 Conner).  In May of 1895, he had a bike worth $85 stolen and offered a $25 reward – big money in those days.  Fortunately, it was recovered.  He won the one-mile-dash at the races at the city Fourth of July celebration.  Asa had his own bicycle shop by November and he bought a gasoline engine to power it.  This led to the paper suggesting that people invest in him for a bicycle factory.

He was made president of bicycle club in 1896 and went to Chicago for a bicycle exhibition in January 1897.  In those days, bicycle club meets were more social events than athletic.  A meet in April of 1897 offered mandolin and guitar music, selections by a glee club and the city band, and then finished with a grand parade.  In August, Asa and another club member spent two weeks touring the eastern states on their bikes, only riding the train when they had to get through the Appalachian Mountains.  In October, his brother Murray and another club member headed west to do a bike tour of the western states and Yellowstone Park.

At home, Asa began his first mechanical experiment – a chainless bicycle.  The paper said, “Asa has no doubt that the bicycle will run all right, but he is inclined to think that it will be too heavy for practical purposes.”  In December, he built a bike for running on icy roads, with a runner on the front wheel and a back wheel with metal prongs for gripping.   The paper said, “It is a success in every particular, except that it requires more force to run it than an ordinary machine.”  He didn’t patent either of the machines.

The two brothers set up shop together in 1898 to do general mechanical work, (much like two brothers in Ohio, Wilbur and Orville Wright).  In June of 1899, Asa built a steam-powered fan to cool the workshop, which was also a bowling alley.  The shop was damaged by a small fire in 1900, and soon after that, Asa bought out his brother’s share.  He moved his shop to 44 West Conner Street.

He built his first automobile in 1902.  It was a very contrary vehicle and, by 1904, it was noted for its wrecks.  Asa was quoted in the paper, “If it wasn’t for me and my automobile, I don’t know what the old town would do for excitement.”  The town didn’t seem to mind because in 1906, there was hope that he would be able to start auto factory.  Another local mechanic named Carl O. Hare said 40 years later, “Asa Robertson and I built a friction-drive monstrosity and finally induced it to run all the way to Tipton and return – no foolin’!”

However, in July of 1906, his shop was destroyed in a fire.  He started to rebuild and, in August, he and Carl Hare helped repair Barney Oldfield’s car.  But later that month, he sold the shop to Hare.  He married in October and moved to Indianapolis soon after that.  He created an auto dealership called the Auto Exchange and lived in Indy until died in 1923.