Revisiting Walter P. Chrysler’s Boyhood in Ellis, Kansas

Walter P. Chrysler was born in 1875 in Wamego, Kansas and grew up in Ellis. If you venture to that town, just west of Hays, you will find the Walter P. Chrysler Boyhood Home and Museum:

We were there on a very rainy day, but it was definitely worth the effort to see this well-maintained little museum. It is well known that Chrysler worked for Union Pacific before joining General Motors as works manager at the Buick plant, but Chrysler’s father, Henry, also worked for the then-Kansas Pacific Railroad as an engineer on wood-burning locomotives. As a teenager, Henry served as a drummer boy for the Kansas 12th Infantry during the Civil War, and the museum has a display of medals earned by him in that service.

Walter Chrysler developed his famous work ethic in Ellis where he worked as a delivery boy for the grocery store, pushing around a heavy two-wheeled cart after school and on weekends. Not surprisingly, he was also a good student and, apparently, a crack shot. A newspaper story from 1889 about the local Fourth of July celebration describes how the local gun club took part in a shooting tournament and suffered an embarrassing defeat at the hands of children. The “Kids” club won by a score of 62 to 51 with the high score, nine out of ten shots, earned by Walter Chrysler.

Chrysler married his childhood sweetheart, and, by all accounts, it was a lifelong romance. Her name was Della Forker. They had four children together and remained married until her death in 1938, two years before Walter Chrysler’s death.

There is only one car on display at the museum, a gorgeous 1924 Chrysler Six:

The Chrysler automobile debuted in 1924, making its widely heralded first appearance at the New York Automobile Show in January of that year. Papers reported that its reception “was probably the greatest and most enthusiastic ever given an automobile. ” The show was held in the Bronx, and “thousands upon thousands” of people swarmed to the armory to view the new reasonably priced Chrysler line-up:

Newspapers reported that the excitement was so intense the NYPD assigned motorcycle policemen to act as bodyguards for the demonstration cars giving rides to the clamoring public. Speed restrictions were also withdrawn so that the quickness and control of the cars could be showcased without fear of traffic citations. Chrysler engineers described the new car as one that improved upon automobile design in the following ways:

Elimination of practically all friction at the junction of moving parts; rapid, efficient and full power development through thermodynamics (the science of heat distribution in relation to power development)-a tremendously important engineering achievement; absolutely vibrationless power at any speed; achievement of 68 horsepower and a maximum speed of more than 70 miles per hour from an engine of only 201 cubic-inch displacement.

An entirely new spring arrangement, insuring riding comfort in a light-weight car; heavier crankshaft than in most cars of twice the weight, totally eliminating crankshaft whip and vibration; seven bearing crankshaft with shimless bearings; tremendous flexibility, both in the engine and throughout the car; more than 20 miles per gallon of gasoline; novel and improved methods of lighting control; filters through which both oil and air must pass, by which impurities in each are removed.”

The new automobile was a triumph for Walter Chrysler, and it was enthusiastically embraced by the car-buying public with sales records shattered in the process. Chrysler went on to take over Dodge Brothers in 1926 and Chrysler Corporation was soon part of the “Big 3.”

Walter P. Chrysler was a capable and hard-working executive known for his leadership abilities, good judgment and brilliant mechanical mind. Ellis, Kansas is right to be proud of its native son, and I appreciate their efforts to preserve history with the maintenance of this humble little home on the prairie.