Before we dive into the history of a street named Chocolate, credit where credit is due: Thanks to Kyle Kingen, a public services circulation assistant at the Herron School of Art for bringing the topic of this post to my attention. Kyle also researched several sources which are used in this post.
Chocolate Avenue was located on the far southwest side of downtown, near the Morris Avenue bridge over the White River. The short stretch of road received its name from Frank Dilling, a businessman who purchased the property on the southwest corner of Morris and West Streets, just east of the White River not long after World War I.
Dilling had multiple interests in Indianapolis, including a real estate company which owned the land on Morris. On the land sat two companies he operated. The first, and most prominent was Dilling & Co., more commonly known as the Dilling Candy Company. Founded in 1887 in Marion by Dilling with an initial investment of $2.50, the company had initially specialized in butterscotch candy, using a recipe Dilling had previously developed while working as a baker.
The company was moved to Indianapolis in 1905 (some sources say 1895, although this is incorrect) and formally incorporated in this city. An announcement of the upcoming move in April of 1905 noted that the company would hire 200 workers, and that the move was made in order to increase the company’s production capacity. The company operated under slogan “If it’s Dilling, It’s Pure,” while producing a wide variety of candy and chocolate products. One of the company's claims to fame was winning highest honors in a competition at the 1900 Paris World's Fair. Some additional history about the operations of Dilling, and other candy manufacturers, and the establishment of “Candy Day” can be found in this Historic Indianapolis post from Libby Cierzniak.
Initially, the company's location in Indianapolis just northwest of the intersection of South and Senate. Today this site is a parking lot on the northside of Lucas Oil Stadium. However, near the end of World War I, Dilling purchased 23 acres along the White River and south of Morris Street, a site that had previously been owned by the National Starch Company. Th site provided some room to expand the company's operations. The move also may have been partly because the company's original site was nearly destroyed by a fire when a box factory next door caught fire, while the new site was more isolated, and lacked unpredictable neighbors.
In 1921, Dilling constructed new manufacturing facilities on the site, in addition to the three existing structures left from the National Starch operations. To access the property, Dilling had the new Chocolate Avenue cut from Morris Street south. The privately owned and maintained roadway became the address for the company's main offices at their production facility.
On August 20, 1921, the Indianapolis Star reported on Dilling’s new operations, including a plan to establish a “Chocolate Village” adjacent to the company’s factory to house its workers and their families. This was not an unusual proposal at the time, and there is a long history of industrial operations being the center of large neighborhoods where the employees and their families lived and grew up. A few examples in Indianapolis were the area around the Atlas Engine Works in the Brightwood neighborhood, the Udell Furniture Works in North Indianapolis, and the Ceraline plant in the Riverside area.
Dilling planned to construct the “modern homes” along the new Chocolate Avenue, between the factory and the White River. The homes were referred to as a “Philadelphia” house, which would be built in units of 10, and be built in white stucco with “chocolate” finishes. However, the News reported that the city was possibly going to construct a boulevard along the White River south of Morris, which could disrupt the village plan. Chocolate Avenue was constructed, but the homes never materialized, as the city did build its boulevard (White River Boulevard East).
Despite the lack of a “Chocolate Village” along Chocolate Avenue, the Dilling operation was sizeable, and as of 1924, employed nearly 300 workers. Around the same time that the candy operations were expanded, Dilling also established the Dilling Paper Box Company adjacent to the candy factories which employed an additional 50 workers. The image below shows the company's operations along Chocolate Ave., the roadway in the foreground.
Dilling produced a large variety of candy products and was one of the largest such producers in the city. The company also had several branch offices located in cities and towns across Indiana and exported its products all over the country and the world. Dilling had started making butterscotch candies in the 1880’s, and while hard candies continued to be produced, chocolate products as well as marshmallows were also a major staple. One of their trademarks was the "Harp" brand chocolates, likely a nod to Dilling's daughter Mildred, who was an internationally renowned harpist.
The company continued to operate through the Great Depression, although the impact of the economic turmoil hitting the nation is not clear. In 1935, a bit of drama struck Dilling In the midst of a city-wide uptick in muggings and robberies, many attributable to a gang which had been operating in the area. On the afternoon of Friday, July 26, three armed robbers barged into the Dilling office on Chocolate Ave. and demanded money, while another waited in a getaway car. The money in the office at the time was limited, and the robbers found only $15 dollars in a cash drawer, and the staff present did not have the keys for the safe. However, one of the employees present, after stating that his keys did not open the safe, helpfully informed the robbers that the office manager had the keys, but he had left to go to the bank to pick up the company’s payroll. The office manager, Charles Gebhardt, had just returned from a bank with the payroll for the week, $1,215, but was relieved of the money by the getaway driver who also pistol whipped him, before all four robbers made their escape. Several of the gang members were later apprehended following a string of robberies across central Indiana.
Frank Dilling passed away the next year, in 1936, although he had been retired from the company for several years. The company's candy operations continued under the guidance of Guy Cronkite, president. Eddie Dowling was the general manager of the company at the time of Dilling's death and would later become president. According to a 1946 newspaper article, Mrs. Dilling remained active with the company and became vice president after her husband's death.
Dilling’s estate was valued to be worth more than $25,000. According to a report in the Star, his will gave his wife one third of his stock in the candy and realty companies free and clear, while the remaining 2/3 would also go her, on the condition she did not remarry. If she did remarry, that stock would go to the couple’s two daughters. His two daughters were from a previous marriage that had collapsed in a spectacular scandal in 1913 when Dilling's wife, Rachel, accused him of being a constant drunkard and maintaining a relationship with a Della Whipple for several years. Dilling did not deny her claims but fought her for several months over a financial support settlement, a fight which included love letters between Dilling, and mistress being entered into evidence.
In 1938 a short news article ran in the Indianapolis Star, announcing the formation of a union of the workers at the Dilling candy company to negotiate for a maximum hours schedule, pay increases, overtime pay, and paid vacations. At the time, the company only had 75 employees, a marked decrease of earlier years.
The onset of World War II presented a challenge for the Dilling candy company. While many advertisements for other companies screamed for workers, and proclaimed a company an “essential business,” Dilling was not one of these. Rationing hit the candy industry hard, and Dilling had to operate with reduced sugar and cocoa supplies, as the ingredients were being redirected for war related uses, or because the markets from where the sugar and coca had previously been obtained were in conflict zones, or susceptible to the hazards of wartime shipping. However, by 1943, things began to change, not only as the war was turning in the favor of the Allies, but also because new sources of candy ingredients were being utilized The Dow Jones reported in June of 1943 that as of that month, more cocoa had been brought into the United States so far in 1943, than in all of 1942. Additionally, exports of sugar from Cuba and Puerto Rico were increasing, doubling the amount which had been imported in 1942.
This change is fortune had a noticeable effect on Dilling, and in 1943 their want ads seeking workers reappeared in local newspapers. Some ads sought male workers who were over the draft age, or draft exempt. One ad, from 1943, noted that the male worker needed to be older than 45, the draft limit at the time.
Ads were also directed towards women, and were run in the "Employment for Women" section of the classifieds, although the ads took a different tone from the advertisements for men, promoting the candy available to eat while working:
Things seemed to be looking up for the company after the fluctuating business during the war years. In a 1946 profile of the company in the Indianapolis News, company officials reported that they were about to implement a new mechanization process with a machine for chocolate production from Sweden which would “quadruple output.” The first machine had been shipped from Sweden in 1941 and routed through the Soviet Union to Japan due to the dangers of German submarines in the Atlantic. However, when the machine reached Japan it was “commandeered and no more was heard about it.” Despite these lofty plans, and a positive outlook, Dilling & Company would shut down their operations in 1948.
The rather abrupt shut down was preceded by a strike which started in late January of that year. On the 30th, a walkout was staged, and picket lines established on Chocolate Avenue, although reports differed on the number of workers involved. The company said thirteen employees, three men and ten women, were participating. James Romer, the state director of the CIO, said that around 50 workers were involved He also noted that the strike was over “undesirable working conditions,” and that wages were not one of the workers’ grievances. The company claimed that they were unaware of the reasons behind the strike, and that the union had not tried to negotiate.
On February 1, 1948, the Star reported that the plant was still operating, although strikers said that no shipments had come in or out of the factory. At the same time as the strike was underway, talks were being held about a merger with another candy company. Eddie Dowling, the company's president, told the News in mid-February that “[i]f negotiations with the other company are unsuccessful, Dilling & Co. intends to dissolve and liquidate.” At that point the negotiations had even ongoing for “several months” per the News, which actually pre-dated the strike (some reports indicated talks had begun in October of 1947). Dowling also told the News that all production employees were on paid vacation at the time. Shortly thereafter, the local representative for the CIO told the media that the strike was abridging by all laws, including submitting a “Communist non-membership affidavit,” required under the Taft-Hartley Act.
After about two months of the strike, on April 6, 1948, the company announced it would liquidate its assets. Dowling told the Star that the company had been meeting orders with a limited staff. The Star noted that no further explanation of the cessation of operations were given, although the sale (or merger) of the company to a “nationally known candy manufacturing company” had collapsed. The strike was not cited for the closure. Public auction announcements were advertised for an auction on May 4. The company’s machinery and equipment being on the auction block, along with raw materials, and “good will & trademarks.” The ad below shows the full list of what was to be auctioned.
The final few months of Dilling & Co. were chaotic. If there actually was a sale in the works, I suspect the employees saw that as an opportunity to address their concerns about the work environment, at a time when the company might be willing to make concessions and not want to have to deal with long term labor issues during a negotiation. At the same time, stating that there was a potential sale in the works with an unnamed suitor provided a ready excuse to cease operations when the "deal" fell through. Whether there were underlying financial concerns or other weaknesses within the company is not clear, but the end of the Dilling candy company came quickly.
The auction of the company’s assets did not include the real estate and structures which were sold later. In March of 1949, the Indianapolis Star reported that the Eli Lilly Company had purchased the former Dilling Candy Company property along Chocolate Ave. The Star noted that Lilly had previously purchased a smaller section of the property in 1946, and now held 15 acres along Chocolate Ave. The plan for the site was additional warehouse and storage space between Lilly's headquarters south of downtown, and new production operations on the westside of the White River. The 1956 Sanborn map of the area shows the old Dilling facilities mostly in place.
The original buildings at the site remained in place for several years, with the 1956 Sanborn showing that Lilly was using at least a portion of the complex for warehouse space. However, by the early 1960’s a massive new warehouse complex was constructed on the site, and the last vestiges of Dilling were gone. Chocolate Avenue, also disappeared, the former street now sitting under the warehouse complex. The aerial images below show the Dilling site in 1956, before the old buildings were demolished, and in 1966, once the new warehouse complex was constructed.
Based on property records, it appears that Lilly continued to own the site, until 2021 when the land was sold to Elanco, a recently spun off subsidiary of Lilly. The sale price for the property, per records held by the county was $13,175,000, although this may have included other assets as part of the separation of the two companies. In August of 2022 a “For Lease” sign appeared outside the warehouse complex where Dilling used to operate, and in September, ownership was transferred to a 1301 SWRP LLC, a company based out of a nondescript office park in suburban Cincinnati, while the ownership is listed to a property in Zionsville, the owner of which is a principal in a real estate investment firm.
The entrance to the long-gone Chocolate Avenue is midway between the river and Dakota Street, and the right of way is noted below in yellow. Morris Street is at the bottom of the image, which is looking south.
Today, one of the few things still around from the Dilling Candy Company are artifacts left over from the products themselves, including various tins and other containers which once held the candy. These often appear on eBay and other auction sites. Occasionally, documents from the company also appear. The images below are an example of a tin which appeared on a Hake’s Auction site earlier in July.
Indianapolis Star: July 27, 1935, August 14, 1936, February 3, 1938, January 29, 1942, February 1, 1948, February 20, 1948, March 6, 1949
Indianapolis News: April 2, 1905, December 4, 1924, June 19, 1943, January 14, 1946, January 30, 1948, February 12, 1948
Activities of the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, October 1924, Vol. 38, No. 10
Indianapolis Sanborn Map #145, 1956, and #29, 1929 Basit Atlas, IUPUI Sanborn and Baist Collection, https://www.ulib.iupui.edu/digitalcollections/sanbornjp2
Dilling Candy Co., 1924, Bass Photo Collection, Indiana Historical Society, https://images.indianahistory.org/digital/collection/dc012/id/751/rec/4