Our Times

Brian Spangle

In the first decades of the 20th century, everyone in Vincennes knew the name Bert C. Fuller, a hometown boy who achieved fame in the world of automobile racing.

Fuller’s occupation as a driver was preceded by time spent in the boxing ring. He would later have a career in the insurance business and work in Republican Party politics. He was extremely successful in those latter pursuits, as well, partly as a result of his personality. Fuller was a popular young man, known for his friendliness and ability to charm.

Bert Fuller was born in Vincennes on Dec. 20, 1882, to Edgar and Susan Briggs Fuller. His father originally worked as a blacksmith and later operated the city’s street sprinkling wagons. In 1905, he was appointed Vincennes Police Chief. The elder Fuller died in 1908.

Fuller dropped out of high school and, not long after the turn of the century, moved out West, where he boxed. Standing 6 feet, 2 inches tall and weighing 240 pounds, he certainly had the physique for boxing. While living there, he was known as “Big Bert.”

He next worked for a Utah automobile company as a “demonstrator,” even traveling all over Europe for three months in 1906 to demonstrate the company’s automobiles.

Fuller raced extensively in the West, most notably in Salt Lake City, driving his 90-horsepower Ford “999,” deemed the fastest car in the world. He bought the car from pioneer automobile racer Barney Oldfield, who he toured with. On June 20, 1903, Oldfield had broken the one-minute mile, driving the “999” at the Indiana State Fairgrounds with a time of 59.6 seconds.

In 1904, in Utah, Fuller achieved a mile in 1 minute, 19 seconds, driving that same car, failing to surpass Oldfield’s record. When he made that time, a Utah newspaper described his driving this way: “People in the grand stand held their breath as he rounded the sharp turns and swaying from side to side, expecting every minute to see him crash through the fence, but he finished every lap with a broad smile which he is noted for, but which could hardly be seen through the thick coating of dust, oil and water which covered his face.”

In 1908, Fuller was back in Vincennes where he and Bert Whitehouse joined in a partnership, leasing a garage on Fairground Avenue (now Washington Avenue), doing auto sales, repairs, and rentals. The business would later be named the Wabash Automobile Co. The partnership was short lived, with Fuller selling his interest to Whitehouse in June 1909.

Fuller raced for several years at the old Vincennes Fairgrounds too, what is now Gregg Park, where he engaged in some match races, drawing enormous crowds.

He married Madie Donaldson in Clark County, Ohio, on Oct. 19, 1910.

Fuller was employed for a time as a salesman for the Robinson-Donaldson Buggy Co. at First and Main streets (Madie’s father was one of the owners of that business) and then began working as an insurance agent for the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. He would run his own insurance agency out of the Grand Hotel at Second and Busseron streets.

Fuller and his wife spent some months in Florida in 1925 and 1926. By early 1927, they had settled in Indianapolis, where he partnered in an insurance agency, later working with his son, George.

Fuller also became a sought-after Republican political organizer. In 1928, he managed the successful gubernatorial campaign of Harry G. Leslie.

Fuller died of pneumonia at his Indianapolis home on Dec. 15, 1940, just days shy of his 58th birthday. His remains were returned to Vincennes for interment in Fairview Cemetery. Madie died on Dec. 5, 1973.

Brian Spangle can be reached at brianrspangle60@outlook.com.

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