Leedy Manufacturing Company and Purdue’s “World’s Largest Drum”

Purdue’s “World’s Largest Drum”, made by Indianapolis’ Leedy Manufacturing Company in 1921, has been involved in many rivalries over its size. Learn more about its unique history from our latest video.

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Credits: Written and produced by Justin Clark.

Music: “Regimented Instinct” by Teknoaxe, “Jumpin’ Boogie Woogie” by Audionautix, “Anchors Aweigh” by US Marine Corps Band, “National Emblem” by US Naval Academy Band, “Low Tide” by Silent Partner, “Jazz Bar” by Doug Maxwell, Media Right Productions, “Hail, Purdue” by Purdue All-American Marching Band

Full Text of Video

Introduction: The Showdown That Wasn’t

Wichita, Kansas, August 23, 1961. The annual convention of the marching band fraternity Kappa Kappa Psi served as host for a legendary showdown of two heavyweights to determine who actually had the “world’s largest bass drum.” Purdue University marching band’s iconic drum, made by Indianapolis’s Leedy Manufacturing Company four decades earlier, boasted a circumference of 21 feet, 11 inches and a thickness of 3 feet, 2 inches. The University of Texas marching band’s 500-pound bass drum, named “Big Bertha,” claimed to be an inch larger in diameter than Purdue’s. Purdue’s chapter of Kappa Kappa Psi “issued the challenge to the Texans and stipulated that each chapter must push the drum by manpower through six cities while en route to Wichita,” the Lafayette Journal and Courier reported. The stage was set; the rules were clear. The decision rested on the final confrontation in Kansas. Purdue’s band successfully traveled through all six cities, arriving on time with their bass drum on August 23 and claiming victory. However, their triumph came not from larger measurements, but from enforcing the rules. The University of Texas failed to push in Big Bertha on time.

Part I: The Leedy Manufacturing Company

The story of Purdue’s “World’s Largest Bass Drum” starts with the company that created it: the Leedy Manufacturing Company. Its founder, Ulysses G. Leedy was born on November 6, 1867 in Hancock County, Ohio. He had been a musician for many years, playing in bands and orchestras in Ohio and Indiana, and he parlayed these experiences into manufacturing musical instruments. Leedy built his first snare drum in 1890, according to the company’s 1945 product catalog, and spent the rest of his life inventing and perfecting his tools of the trade.

In 1895, Ulysses G. Leedy and clarinetist Samuel M. “Sam” Cooley gathered $50.00 each and began to make drums, under the name of Leedy & Cooley. A room at Indianapolis’ legendary Cyclorama building on West Market Street housed the company’s original headquarters, as confirmed by the Indianapolis News. After a successful few years, Leedy and Cooley’s partnership officially ended on August 1, 1902 “by mutual consent,” according to a notice published in the News. Leedy then continued his business under the name “Leedy Manufacturing Company” with business partners Charles B. Wanamaker and Herman Winterhoff.

Leedy was a tireless innovator. He filed his first patent on December 14, 1898, for a “drum-stand.” The stand’s unique improvement came from a design wherein the “compass” that a drum rested on could be folded up for easy transport when not in use. The patent was awarded on May 9, 1899. The Indianapolis News reported his patent on the same day. Over the next 30-plus years, at least 36 patents were awarded to Leedy, plant superintendent Cecil H. Strupe, company Vice President Herman E. Winterhoff, and founding co-director Charles B. Wanamaker.

A chief product of the company was the snare drum (patented April 1907), which is the central drum in concert and marching bands. Alongside the snare, the company patented a variety of innovative drum accessories, including a “Drum-Heater” (1912), “Foot-Control Snare Control for Snare Drums” (1923), and “Snare-Drum Stick” (1923). They also branched into other types of instruments, including the vibraphone. In 1916, company Vice President Herman Winterhoff began devising new approaches to vibrating tones in steel marimbas (Marimbaphone). By the 1920’s, Winterhoff and Leedy engineers devised a practical instrument with rotating fans in the resonators that made complete revolutions. The Vibraphone, as it was later called, became a familiar instrument in dance bands and radio performances.

Another chief product of the company was the timpani, made from one solid sheet of copper in a unique process developed by plant superintendent Cecil H. Strupe. The patent application describes what this new process entails. “The object of my invention,” Strupe writes, “is to produce by a single drawing and pressing operation. . . kettles for tympany [sic] from thin sheet copper or other suitable metal.” This process involved two components that sandwiched the sheet metal into the shape of a timpani, which reduced friction and eliminated wrinkles. A May 19, 1929 article from the Indianapolis Star provides additional detail on the process: “The sheet is placed in a hydraulic press, which exerts a pressure of 12,000 pounds a square inch. It required four years of experimenting to perfect the press.” The 1928 Leedy product catalog claimed that their timpani “[is] recognized by the great majority as the finest machine type timpani ever invented.” Leedy even employed its timpani for sound effect in early sound motion pictures, along with an “electric motor rotating a series of straps” to reproduce the sounds of an airplane and a series of whistles for bird sounds.

Seventeen departments supported products made on-site from raw materials, including a “tannery, drumhead plant, lumberyard, chrome plating works, and shops for making cases and custom tools,” according to the Encyclopedia of Indianapolis. Additionally, a metal storeroom housed aluminum and twenty-seven different types of steel used in the manufacturing of Leedy products. Leedy shipped products to all parts of the world using a distributor agency in Toronto, Canada known as the Advance Music Company, organized by former Leedy executive George H. Way. By 1929, Leedy manufactured 900 drum and percussion products from its Indianapolis manufacturing facility and claimed to be world’s largest drum factory. That same year, Conn and Buescher, a leading band instrument manufacturer in Elkhart, Indiana, acquired control of the company and moved its operations to Elkhart the next year. Ulysses G. Leedy, the man behind the company, died in 1931 at the age of 63. The production of Leedy instruments in Elkhart was discontinued by 1955 and the brand died out by the mid-1960s.

Part II: Purdue’s “World’s Largest Drum”

The idea of creating the “World’s Largest Drum” came from Paul Spotts Emrick, the director of Purdue University’s marching band. He wanted a drum of “impossible proportions,” the Lafayette Journal-Courier wrote. Purdue University commissioned the drum from the Leedy Manufacturing Company in June 1921; its final cost was around $800, or $11,838 today. As drumheads at the time were made with animal skins, Leedy collaborated with Kingan & Co. (known for their talents in the butchering industry) to find the perfect drumheads. “Hundreds of skins were carefully examined,” the Greencastle Herald reported, “before two suitable for the drum heads were found.”

Purdue revealed the new drum in the Indianapolis Star on August 6, 1921 and later displayed it at the Indianapolis Public Library and the Indiana Statehouse, before the inauguration of its official performance schedule. The drum made its first musical appearances at the Indiana State Fair from September 5-10, 1921 and instantly became a hit among attendees. Its size was immense. The Indianapolis Star reported that the drum was “seven feet three inches in diameter by forty-two inches in depth,” “stands nine feet six inches from the ground,” and consisted of 125 pieces. It was so big, in fact, that two men had to man it for parades on a chassis. Purdue engineering students also worked on designing a “special carriage” for its travel, according to the South Bend News-Times. In its 1921 product catalog, Leedy Manufacturing Company devoted a full-page spread to the “largest bass drum in the world,” with a photograph depicting the massive percussion instrument on its special, two-wheeled chassis. It certainly earned its other nickname, “The Monster.”

In 1922, the bass drum was used for two performances on Memorial Day weekend, in conjunction with the running of the Indianapolis 500. The first was a concert, held at the State Fair Coliseum on May 29, 1922. As the Lafayette Journal-Courier noted, “the big bass drum, the largest in the world, will be sent from the capital city on a special flat car and will be used in all concerts given by the band in Indianapolis.” On May 31, 1922, with the roar of the Indianapolis 500 around them, a 1,050-member band, of which Purdue was a part, performed in a parade, the Indianapolis Star printed. Repairs of the drum shortly after these performances were noted by the Lafayette Journal-Courier. “The hide on the drum had contracted much during the cold weather,” they wrote, “and it was necessary to place steel bands around the drum to remedy the effect.”

Since its unveiling in 1921, Purdue’s bass drum has been a point of contention as to whether it was actually “the world’s largest bass drum.” An August 6, 1921 article in the Indianapolis Star noted that it was “said to be the largest bass drum in the world,” but a June 30, 1921 article in the South Bend News-Times referred to it as “one of the largest bass drums in the world.” Within a few years, rival universities began to challenge Purdue’s percussion supremacy. A pithy line in the November 5, 1922 issue of the Star even acknowledged this: “It looks as if the colleges had entered a race for the world’s largest drum.” That same year, the University of Chicago challenged Purdue’s claim to the largest, claiming that its bass drum manufactured by C.G. Conn Ltd. was bigger. However, as the Lafayette Journal and Courier noted, “the University of Chicago Drum was taller, but it was also thinner. Depending on how you measured the drum, either could claim to be world’s largest.” Fortunately for Purdue, the University of Chicago lost its football program in 1939, and with it its marching band. But Chicago’s bass drum would find new life elsewhere and lead to one of Purdue’s most enduring rivalries.

In 1955, the University of Texas at Austin purchased Chicago’s long-dormant bass drum, giving it a whole new life. It would be known as “Big Bertha,” and this rebranding also rekindled the rivalry with Purdue for bass-drum dominance. Vincent R. DiNino, the Texas Longhorn Band director, billed it as the “world’s largest drum,” which led to Al Wright, Purdue’s marching band director, openly challenging DiNino’s claim. An article in the Austin American from June 29, 1961 shows Wright measuring Big Bertha with a T-square, but as the article further notes, “after Wright’s measurements, the issue is still in doubt.” This led to their most infamous showdown, or lack of one, on August 23, 1961, where the University of Texas “failed to arrive in Wichita by the deadline set” and Purdue preemptively claimed victory in the bass drum war. The Indianapolis Star noted that “Purdue hauled its drum to the convention by truck, but bandsmen pushed it through several cities on the route, including Indianapolis.”

Other institutions also vied for the “largest” drum mantle. As the Provo, Utah Daily Herald chronicled on July 11, 1961, Dodge City, Kansas insisted that their drum, nicknamed “Boomer,” was the largest, despite being “uninvited or unchallenged” at the Kappa Kappa Psi meeting. At home, the University of Notre Dame claimed that its “Flat Jacks Drum” was also larger than Purdue’s in 1964, but unlike Purdue’s, it only sported one drumhead and was not nearly as thick. As Keith Mallet wrote in an editorial published in the South Bend Tribune, “with a capacity of 214,000 cubic inches, [Purdue’s] is still the ‘World’s Largest Drum.’ The N. D. drum has exactly zero cubic inches.” Even Disneyland got in on the action! The Albuquerque Journal reported in 1965 that the Anaheim, California-based theme park had a drum that was “10 feet, six inches high, 42 inches wide, [and] without [a] carriage.” A year later, Purdue and its drum performed at Disneyland, with the Pasadena Independent speculating on whether “these juggernauts of sound may meet face-to-face today.” While it’s unclear whether any of these rivals could have really claimed the mantle of “largest,” Purdue’s drum nevertheless gained its reputation as such.

Conclusion: The Problem with “Superlatives”

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Purdue’s “World’s Largest Drum,” which is still in use today, albeit with synthetic drumheads originally developed by associates at the DuPont Research Laboratories. Purdue’s marching band has used “Monster” during performances at the Rose Bowl, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Dublin, to name only a few. It has even appeared in video games! Despite its long and illustrious history, the rivalries over its size continue. The University of Texas still claims to be bigger, as indicated by an article by Jane Grieg in a 1999 edition of the Austin American-Statesman. According to Grieg and statistics from Purdue, the “World’s Largest Drum” is a half foot shorter in width than “Big Bertha,” making the latter the larger drum. Purdue disputes this to this day.

In 2008, on the 87th anniversary of its first unveiling, Purdue’s “World’s Largest Drum” paid a special visit to someone closely connected with it—Mary Leedy Hampton, Ulysses G. Leedy’s daughter. “I hammered on it when it new and I hammered on it now,” she said on the eve of her 100th birthday to the Richmond Palladium, and added, “I’m glad to know the drum is still in good shape.” Lost in all the rivalries over size is the real human story of the “World’s Largest Drum.” It started as an idea between a charismatic band leader and an innovative drum maker, who both strived to make something truly remarkable. As Hampton also said to the Palladium, the continued relevance of the “World’s Largest Drum” honored U. G. Leedy’s unique legacy.

The story of Purdue’s “World’s Largest Drum” highlights the problem with superlatives in historical scholarship. At the Indiana Historical Bureau, one of the rules of our historical marker program is that markers should not contain text with absolute superlatives like “first,” “last,” “only,” or in this case, “largest.” As such, the marker text on the forthcoming Leedy Manufacturing Company marker reads, “In 1921, it built the famous large bass drum for Purdue University’s band.” We are accurately noting its fame and size without saying that it is the largest. Terms like that are always up for dispute, which is why it is unwise to put them on a cast iron marker for future generations to read. Regardless of the rivalries and quibbles about measurements, Purdue’s “World’s Largest Drum”—and the people who made it, played it, and celebrated it—have left an indelible mark on Indiana’s music history.