You Can’t Tell A Building By Its Location

“Hey, that must be the old train station,” walkers, bikers, others who traverse the Pennsy Trail are often heard saying as they pass by the building at the east end of Bonna Ave. at its intersection with Good Ave. A quick look around might seem to confirm this assumption – small structure; 1890-1900 style; immediately adjacent to former railroad. But, looking a little deeper into the building’s location one might ask, “If it’s the old train station, why is it a good distance east of the commercial buildings at Audubon Rd. and the former railroad?” The answer is simple; one cannot always tell a building by its location. The recently restored structure at 203 Good Ave. is the former office of the coal yard that once occupied this spot in Irvington. Initially, it was a simple two room building with the office in front and a scale room in back for weighing the coal trucks as they passed over a scale imbedded in the driveway. The rear of the building is a later addition.
Aldag & Coonse Company, a retail coal business, bought the lot in February 1904 for $745 (2016: $20,183) and proceeded to erect this office building and develop the property as Irvington’s first coal yard. However, a coal yard at that time was much more than a place selling just Pocahontas and Black Diamond; it was the Lowes or Home Depot of the day. In addition to coal and coke, a coal yard sold lime and cement, bricks and cement blocks, and other building materials. A railroad spur connected the yard with the adjacent Pennsylvania Railroad to facilitate railcar deliveries.
When the company opened a yard at East Washington Street and the Belt Railroad shortly after it had incorporated in June 1903, it was one of the first building material companies to serve the east side of Indianapolis. Establishing a branch yard in Irvington was only natural since Harvey Coonse, the company’s president, had made his home in Irvington for some years and was widely known in the business, commercial, and civic interests of the community. After about seven years, Coonse left his position with the company for other endeavors, and the business continued as F. W. Aldag & Co. Following the death of Wilhelm Aldag in 1925, the Irvington branch yard was sold and became Community Coal & Supply. It passed through a couple of other owners before Ernest L. Hadley and John D. Bruckman formed Hadley & Bruckman Ice & Fuel Co in the mid-‘30s. Hadley had little interest in the business, and on the eve of World War II Bruckman became the sole proprietor of Bruckman Ice & Fuel Co.
John D. Bruckman was a member of a pioneer Warren Township family that had farmed land at the northwest corner of Arlington Ave. and East Tenth St. for many years. He was raised in Irvington and attended the Irvington Public School through the eighth grade. At age thirteen, Bruckman entered the workforce as a farm laborer, and served as a sergeant in the United States Army during World War I burying American dead from the Meuse-Argonne offensive, including his childhood friend Hilton U. Brown, Jr. Following the war, Bruckman worked as a machinist at the New York Central Railroad shops in Beech Grove and for Indianapolis automotive companies. The factory work was subject to economic downturns, and Bruckman, looking for a steady income to support his family, began selling ice after a “neighbor offered him a truck and a few ice accounts,” according to his grandson Don Rouse. This eventually led to the formation of Bruckman Ice & Fuel Co.
For nearly three decades, Bruckman Ice & Fuel Co served the people of Irvington offering “Quality Coal; Personal Attention.” Customer loyalty was once a common trait, particularly with neighbors and neighborhood based businesses. Other coal companies served the Irvington community – Irvington Coal & Lime Co. on Bonna Ave. and Irvington Ice & Coal Co (see “The Ice House,” The Weekly View, 28 July 2016) on South Ritter Av, but my grandparents traded with Bruckman through all of the years I can remember that they heated with coal. It may have been church based – my grandparents and the Bruckmans attended Downey Avenue Christian Church – or it may have been something else.
The company was a family business with Mildred Bruckman, John’s wife, running the office, and Ed Leek, an African-American and confidante, the only full time employee. The United Christian Missionary Society, based in Irvington, provided Bruckman with business loans. Besides the office, the only other structures on the property were two garages – one for the coal truck and later one for the oil truck. Along the north side of the property were various bins, separated by low concrete walls, to hold the different grades of coal. On the rest of the four acre property, Bruckman had a great vegetable garden and berry patch. Neighbors and church friends were allowed to pick blueberries from the bushes along the south side of the lot, according to Don Rouse.
In the mid-‘50s, home heating oil was added to the Bruckman Ice & Fuel Co. inventory. The fuel oil didn’t come with a romantic coal name like West Virginia Pioneer Island Creek, but it recognized the changing heating needs of the company’s customers. From account books in Don Rouse’s possession, John Bruckman often “carried” several of the neighbors when they could not pay for their coal or oil. When he died in 1962, John Bruckman was a respected and trusted Irvingtonian. His grandson tells of people he has encountered as an adult who tell him how remarkable his Grandpa was, and how fondly the Bruckmans are remembered a half century or more after their deaths.
Bruckman’s son, John Bruckman, tried to keep the business going, but he was unable to get credit at a local bank because he was “unknown” as a businessman. Eventually, Muessing Coal and Oil bought the business and closed the “Bruckman Coal Yard.” In the following decades, the site was used by various contractors and construction companies until Pyramid Architecture & Engineering bought the property about eight years ago for its offices. The office building has been restored and true to the Bruckman tradition, the Irvington Preparatory Academy has been allowed to use a portion of the large lot for a soccer field.
Oh, by the way, the site of the old Irvington train station is where the 1960s house stands near South Audubon Rd. and Bonna Ave.