As the year opens on the 2011 Indianapolis mayoral campaign, it seems timely to recall the career of one of the city's most colorful mayors. Samuel Lewis "Lew" Shank took office 101 years ago and made an indelible impression on the voters through his common touch, humor, and populist stands on bread-and-butter issues.
Born in 1872 and raised on the east side of Indianapolis, Shank left Shortridge High School after two years and went to work as a furniture salesman. With a natural gift for making friends, he ran for public office and became county recorder at age 30. In 1906, he started an auctioneer’s business that grew rapidly and eventually included one of the first moving and furniture storage concerns in the city. As Shank’s popularity with the common folk grew, Republican power broker Joseph Kealing approached him to run for mayor in 1909. Shank won a large following with his humor and rapport with crowds and easily won election.
He roused the opposition of various vested interests, such as brewers, saloon-keepers, and red-light district businesses, and won nation-wide attention in 1911 when he took direct action to bring down what he decried as the "high cost of living." Shank personally bought two rail car loads of potatoes when the price of that basic food staple was at unusually high in groceries and the City Market. He then recruited city workers and volunteers to help him sell pecks of potatoes directly to the public in front of the City Market. The mayor sold the potatoes at cost and gained much publicity. Shortly afterward, he purchased live and dressed turkeys, chickens, and ducks and sold them also in front of the market to eager citizens. The newspapers dubbed him the “Potato Mayor” and in 1913, after he left the mayor’s office, an agent for one of the vaudeville circuits offering live entertainment to theatre audiences across the country offered Shank a handsome contract to perform. The ex-mayor, with his capacity to hold crowds with his homespun humor and stories, became a big success and entertained vaudeville goers from New York to California for two years. His most frequent topic was to poke fun at all of the middle men who he said drove up the costs of eggs.
His chief advisor and booster was his first wife, Sarah, who ran the auctioneering and storage business while he was mayor. Perhaps because of his respect for her keen judgment in business, Lew Shank came out in favor of women’s suffrage in 1912. In 1921, when he ran for mayor a second time, he drew Sarah into the campaign, proclaiming that he was running on the "Me and Sarah" platform. He appointed his wife to the city board of park commissioners, and Sarah Shank won ready respect for her thorough knowledge of the city parks and capacity to provide sound advice to her peers. During his second term, Mayor Shank won additional public attention by personally picketing at the Statehouse against increases proposed by the city water utility.
There are several places associated with Lew or Sarah Shank that still exist in Indianapolis. On the south side, at Keystone and Troy Avenues, can be found the Sarah Shank Municipal Golf Course, named in honor of the former mayor’s wife in 1927. At 1430 N. Illinois Street stands the former Shank Warehouse and Auction Company Building, now Simply Self Storage, which Lew Shank constructed in 1925. And his final home, a Mediterranean style house facing the golf course of the Woodstock Club, still is located in the Golden Hill neighborhood.