A new manufacturing city, to be known as Lena Park, has been established in northern Indiana, for which a great future is predicted.
~The Inter Ocean. July 24th, 1910.
Clean air. The passengers breathed it in as they put distance between themselves and the train. Air without the city’s permanent tinges of exhaust, horse manure, standing water, and human excrement. This was Indiana farm air. Clean air.
They came to Lena Park by the thousands, stepping out of the chartered Lena Park Special onto 8 square miles of flat farmland. Curious neighbors from the surrounding Starke County came to watch the surreal swell of working-class Chicagoans, all freshly scrubbed and wearing their Sunday best. Many spoke only broken English. Some spoke none at all.
Everything was free. Refreshments were free. A small band set up on a flattened square of dirt and played cheerful ragtime. The music was free. These hard-working Americans had pinched pennies to save and now wanted to achieve land ownership, that greatest of American dreams.
None suspected the truth: Lena Park was a lie.
Men with white badges and white hats wove through the jostling crowds, smiling, shaking hands, answering questions and gesturing at the hundreds of staked out lots, most 25′ x 120′, each carefully numbered. Folks browsed the identical lots like fruit at the supermarket, trying to find the best one. As they strolled, the agents from Square Realty Company rattled off company names that would soon move to Lena Park:
The United States Ball Bearing Manufacturing Company will hire 100 men in two months.
The Output Cut Glass Plant plans to hire in just weeks.
The Automobile Lamp Factory arrives in just ten days.
Lusgarten & Co., the famous makers of galvanized wire, promises to start construction in just three days!
Visitors found an old man the most impressive feature of all. Donning a fine silk hat and gold-headed cane, this dashing figure was none other than Thomas Lyon, founder of Chicago’s famous Lyon & Healy Organ and Piano Company. Mr. Lyon came solely to assure anxious buyers that the future of Lena Park was guaranteed. He himself planned to build several “monster factories” and would hire anyone that wanted good work for good pay. His easy, confident charm won everyone over.
The problem was, Thomas Lyon of the Lyon & Healy Organ and Piano Company had died in the 1880s. And none of the companies the agents had listed made any kind of promise to build in Lena Park. In fact, several of those companies didn’t even exist.
Across the entire eight square miles of Lena Park in 1909, the only signs of construction were six hastily-built shacks, three vacant frame houses, and beginnings of a brick store. The Lena Park Rail Station wasn’t a “station” at all, but a 6′ x 6′ wooden platform in the middle of nowhere.
Thomas (real name Pascal) Hicks and William Williams were not selling land, but a lovely lie. They had indeed purchased around 5,000 acres of fertile farmland 60 miles southeast of Chicago, but had no intention of farming. They bought it because word had trickled into Chicago that this hunk of land in Northwest Indiana would become the next Gary, Indiana.
Gary was every capitalist’s dream. It was wealth from nowhere, like printing money. Empty miles of lakeshore and sandy soil that J.P. Morgan had turned into US Steel. In 1909, US Steel was the world’s first billion-dollar business, the world’s largest steel producer, and the world’s largest corporation. Land that had been purchased for pennies had appreciated 10 and 20 times over. That’s how fortunes were made!
Inspired by this, Hicks & Williams swooped in and bought the 5,000 acres, begging and borrowing to make the balance…and as soon as they had the deed in hand, discovered interest in the patch of Indiana farmland had faded. Too few near the site meant a small labor pool, which meant higher wages, which meant less profit. These land speculators were stuck with eight square miles of farmland and an iron yoke of debt.
They didn’t despair but got creative and created Lena Park, named after the Lena Williams, the “famed” socialite and sister of William Williams. Lena herself showed up at a few of the excursions personally, posing for photos with delighted investors, who happily forked over the few extra dollars for the souvenir photo.
Lena Park was a lie, but not a cheap lie. The two men really did charter a train from the Chicago, Cincinnati, and Louisville Railroad (C.,C. & L. R.R.) to shuttle investors to the budding “metropolis” and back. In fact, the railway had to construct a quarter mile of extra track to accommodate the stop, an extraordinary expense.
The men had to hire agents donning white hats, men who probably had no knowledge of the scam. Musicians, cooks, service workers, food, drinks, token merchandise…those costs added up.
Most expensive of all were the newspaper ads. Hicks & Williams pasted Lena Park ads in the classified section of Chicago’s newspaper for nearly two years. More often than not, their ad was the largest on the page, with the words ‘LENA PARK’ and ‘LOTS’ in giant block letters. Hicks and Williams employed a particularly loathsome tactic when they funneled ads into the new Polish Daily News (or Dziennik Związkowy in Polski).
As the excursions continued, you could see the desperation in Hicks & Williams con. The requirements would change. At the beginning they gave away free lots (with the purchase of other lots). Lots hovered around $5 each, then grew to $10, then $15, then $20. No checks, only cash, and toward the end of the scam, they offered “easy payments.” Sometimes the two men collected token fees for the train rides, sometimes it was 100% free.
One requirement never changed: they allowed NO ONE below the age of 18 on the train. Thousands of people would picnic on the empty prairie farmland, without the slightest laugh or shout of children. Lena Park was high pressure selling at its best. If it hadn’t been black-hearted fraud, the two men might have gone down in Chicago history as great salesmen.
The two grifters made a sizable investment in Lena Park, but their record-keeping was…well, there wasn’t any real record-keeping. Investors would purchase a lot, the officers would make a big show of issuing a certificate, promising every lot was “guaranteed by the Abstract, Title, and Guarantee Company of Knox, Indiana.” The company existed, but Hicks & Williams had no such guarantee. They didn’t even track investors’ payments.
The fraud wasn’t discovered overnight; the Lena Park façade eroded gradually. Despite assurances of immediate construction, no additional construction took place. No company (other than Square Realty Company) mentioned Lena Park as a future manufacturing site. In fact few had heard of it. After a few months, small lawsuits dogged Hicks and Williams, but the two men continued the ruse. It only ended when a legal notice appeared in Chicagoland papers, and investors saw the company that held their future had declared bankruptcy. This was followed months later by William Williams declaring personal bankruptcy.
Bear in mind, these two men had run excursion ads in Chicago newspapers into December, only two months before the company went under. What’s worse is those last, desperate ads ran almost exclusively in Polish newspapers. It was a final, greedy grab.
The Ugly Math
Most of these numbers are rough, what Carl Sagan once called “Back of the envelope math.” But it gets the point across.
As reported by the Muncie Evening Press, which referenced accounting from the tax records of Knox, Indiana, Hicks & Williams sold 4,220 lots of the 5,500 issued, with each lot roughly 2400 square feet. Lots were sold at a variety of prices, but we can assume an average of $20 per lot, cash in hand. That brings the total to $84,400. $2.4 million in 2022.
These thousands of lots were purchased by 1,120 buyers, most of them from Chicago, a few from Indiana, and many of them immigrants. Adjusting for inflation, that meant each of these families spent $60 ($1,700 in 2022) on these fraudulent lots. The lots weren’t entirely worthless. Tax assessors valued Lena Park as fertile, flat farmland worth about $80 per acre. Each 20′ x 120′ lot was 1/17th of an acre, so that works out to $340 per acre. Here’s the final product of these equations:
Hicks & Williams duped 1,120 families into paying $20 for lots of Indiana farmland worth less than $5 each.
When the bubble burst, Hoosiers wanted the two men put on trial. Chicagoans wanted them dead and bashed on the doors of Hicks and Williams’ offices, some brandishing firearms. Italians, Poles, Hungarians, Germans, and Swedes all cooperated to bring these men to justice…or something much worse. Had their intentions not been so violent, their unity would be moving.
No justice would be had. The two men vanished. That might be hard today, but it was a fairly easy trick in 1911. They vanished with their Lena Park treasure and, as far as known, never faced a civil or criminal penalty for the scam. American justice was very lenient toward business in 1911, and public opinion found more fault in the person being scammed, not the perpetrator. Buyer beware.
Pascal Hicks and William Williams deceived and defrauded over a thousand Chicagoland families and walked away without a scratch.
Today, Lena Park is mostly farmland, with a handful of homes and patches of second growth grass and weeds. There is no sign of the little construction that had been there. Only the abandoned remains of the rail line are still visible, a scar crisscrossing the farmland northwest to southeast.
Want to Know More?
Of all the articles used in this research (dozens), by far the best was “Lena Park, Deserted City” by the Muncie Evening Press. Written about six months after investors uncovered the truth of Lena Park, it’s an exceptional feature article.
The University of Missouri has a fantastic resource I have returned to time and again. Their database “Prices and Wages by Decade” (boring name, I know) features well-supported statistics on relative costs from the 1600s to today. Where else can you discover the average cost of real butter in 1901 was $.25 per pound?