MEMORIES OF SKILES TEST AND THE HOUSE OF BLUE LIGHTS
By: Patricia Brinkman Hicks (email)
My connection to the north-side Indianapolis estate known as The House of Blue Lights, owned by the late Skiles E. Test is that Mr. Test was my father’s employer. For my entire childhood, until Mr. Test died in 1964, I lived less than a mile away from the House of Blue Lights. In 1964, after the death of Mr. Test, I moved into the actual house. During Mr. Test’s life, his entire property known as the House of Blue Lights was made up of hundreds of acres which included a dairy farm, acres of planted crops, vegetable and flower gardens, farm animals, various out buildings such as a horse barn, several storage sheds and, of course, gasoline pumps needed for the vast amount of farm equipment. My father ran the dairy farm and performed other functions for the estate. My grandmother was Mr. Test’s cook and my grandfather was groundskeeper for many years. Two of my brothers worked weekends and summers at the farm also. My brother Tom worked with the many cats which Skiles Test loved and cherished. Tom also assisted with the St. Bernard dogs. My brother David helped our dad run the farm.
Most people in Indianapolis have heard of the popular “haunted house” known as The House of Blue Lights. Folklore experts know that the reclusive and eccentric multi-millionaire decorated the exterior of his home and the glass brick sides of the swimming pool with blue Christmas lights. The legend began to circulate that Skiles buried his wife in a glass coffin which was on display. This type of rumor promoted lots of curiosity about the estate. As a child I took this all for granted, knew the tales to be untrue, and thought nothing unusual about the job my dad held. I since have come to realize my father’s employer was quite a brilliant and interesting philanthropist.
At the time of Mr. Test’s death in March, 1964, the estate was emptied of all his possessions, from the house and surrounding out-buildings and sold at auction. This auction was held on the grounds, and drew huge crowds of people. I moved into the estate in April 1964 and lived there for two years along with my parents, who lived there for another 5 years. I enjoyed the house and the aura of mystery I felt the entire time I was in residence
I recall many wonderful summer days in the 1950s. I was allowed to go to the apple orchard and the raspberry patches located in the exact spot where Skiles Test Elementary School is now located, and sometimes I would stop in to see what was happening at the farm. Of course my main interest was the cats. In those days, Johnson Road was an unpaved dirt road which led to Castleton. One could travel north on Shadeland, a two-lane road in those days, to Castleton. Shadeland was Road 100 along the entire east side of the City back then and ran from English Avenue on the southeast side to Castleton. Our main entrance to the farm was the north entrance on 65th street. The lane was seven tenths of a mile to the gas pumps. One could often observe the farm trucks and tractors all lined up at the four gasoline pumps, being readied for a day’s work on the farm. My Dad hauled gasoline in a tanker truck to the farm two or three times a week from the Pure Oil Company terminal in downtown Indianapolis, which Mr. Test owned. Among other enterprises, Mr. Test owned a Nash automobile dealership, drove a Nash for years, and furnished new Nash cars to many of his employees.
Acres and acres of hay was baled and corn and soybeans were harvested and taken to the elevator in Castleton to be ground and used to feed the animals. My parents planted and maintained a vegetable garden – a huge plot of land on Fall Creek Road for themselves and also a large plot for Mr. Test. The property he owned was generally from 56th Street to 75th Street and from Hillcrest Country Club to Hague Road.
During the day, Test Farms, Inc. operated in the same fashion as other farms in the area. At night, however, it was a different story! Nights brought thrill-seeking teenagers from around Indianapolis hoping to get a glimpse of the blue lights and experience the “haunted house” folklore. Many times the fences were cut or climbed over, and people broke into the property on a regular basis. On occasion, trespassers were caught swimming in the pool. One of my father’s jobs was to discourage this behavior and to escort the uninvited guests out.
Skiles Test – The man.
To me, Mr. Test was a gentle person, kind and caring. He was intense; one who fairly sparkled with enthusiasm and creativity. He had a whimsical nature – thus the grown-up toys. A railway around his property and a gondola cart which shuttled him up and down a hill (for no reason except it was fun for him).
Sensitive to the wishes and needs of other people, he was known for his insight and was
quite good at reading others. Many considered him to be a loyal friend.
I personally remember thinking Skiles Test had a child-like quality, lighthearted and upbeat. History reminds me however, that Mr. Test was a serious minded deep thinker and contributed much to society.
At the time of his death, Mr. Test owned about 150 cats. During the previous years, in the 1950’s, he befriended and housed as many as 250 at a time. He had elaborate compartments built for these cats and kittens, roomy and carpeted little shelters, making his precious pets as comfortable as possible. They were allowed to roam the estate at will, and even use the pool house for shelter.
The cats were fed fresh boiled chicken every day. This was brother Tom’s main job along with feeding, grooming and cleaning the pens. The feeding and care of the cats was of great importance to Mr. Test, as was their safety. Tom spent many long hours with him working for him as a young child until he graduated from High School in 1964, the same year Mr. Test died.
Several signs were posted along the driveways, instructing drivers to proceed at only 5 mph in order to protect the cats from being hit. Skiles hired a veternarian who was on staff full-time and spent many long hours caring for the health and safety of the cats.
.Mr. Test told everyone he had a favorite cat. The cat’s name was “Lemon Pie”. It was said that the name came from an incident where the cat sneaked up to a newly baked lemon pie which was placed on a cooling rack awaiting refrigeration, whereupon the cat consumed the entire pie filling leaving only the crust.
When Mr. Test learned that I too loved cats, and indeed I loved the furry creatures almost as much as he did, he gave me my beloved “Lulabelle”. I had this cat for 12 years. He never forgot to ask me about her welfare.
One of the chores assigned to my brother Tom was the job of constructing the caskets and tombstones for the cats. Tom assisted Mr. Test in building small caskets and carpeting the bottoms for a comfortable resting place. He etched the name of each deceased cat on it’s personal tombstone. Tom dutifully attended most cat funerals and was the one Skiles called upon to recite the Lord’s Prayer over each burial.
Mr. Test – Philosophy
I did not spend much time with Mr. Test, so I knew little of his philosophy. However, my younger brother, Tom, mentioned earlier as having spent many hours with Mr. Test, tells me of Mr. Test’s habit of not making a decision instantly, but putting off an opinion for two days, stating to Tom that this was his hard and fast rule that had served him well over the years.
Tom still considers Mr. Test his mentor. He knew him to be generous and interesting and considers Skiles to have been a genius inventor – always finding new and fun things to do. Tom assisted in building a dog-cart and helped a dog trainer with Mr. Test’s pet St. Bernard dogs. The dog cart was used to ride in by Mr. Test and the dogs pulled it with him in it guiding with reins. Tom and a dog trainer hired by Mr. Test taught the two St. Bernards to actually start, stop and turn right or left. The first dog was named Kim, a male dog who weighed about 240 lbs and Fuzzy who was a 220 lb female. Mr. Test enjoyed the dogs, the dog cart and all the puppies.
Mr. Test was a lover of flowers and was seen working in the flowers and frequently gathering bouquets which he presented to his many lady friends.
Mr. Test had a trusted and devoted friend, Vivian Fleming, who shared his love of animals and helped him throughout the years to care for them. In fact, after his death, Ms. Fleming found homes for 150 cats. Ms. Fleming and Skiles Test were close companions during the last years of his life.
The Employees of the Farm:
Mr. Test traveled to California frequently and stayed several weeks each time. While he was gone, the “farm” was kept going by his employees. He had at least 12 employees running the estate. I remember his housekeeper, Zinnia, and of course his cook, my grandmother. My grandfather was groundskeeper, and my father managed the entire operation. Mr.Test had a full-time electrician, a payroll clerk, and several farm hands.
Skiles Test had a daughter who was born in 1942. Louellen lived in Burlingame, California and visited the estate for a couple weeks in the summer. Mr. Test’s love and devotion to this daughter was obvious. She usually brought a friend to accompany her on her visits to see her father, and she enjoyed the swimming pool.
Curiosity Seekers and Vandals
Shamefully, over the years many people trespassed on the estate and while most were simply curious, some were overtly destructive. In earlier years, while Mr. Test was still living, some cats were captured and thrown into the pen with the dogs, subsequently causing suffering to the cats. When I lived in the house, it was my pleasure to show “guests” around the estate and try to dispel the mystery. However, some mischief was inevitable. One person somehow evaded the guards at the gate and managed to get into the horse barn and burn it down. That was a very scary sight at 4:00 a.m. Thanks to the Castleton Fire Department we were safe, but the fire burned for days.
Another scary incident was when a Sheriff’s deputy who was assigned to guard our north entrance decided to shoot a rodent he had spotted sitting on a large wooden keg in an outbuilding, unaware that the keg on which the raccoon was sitting contained black gunpowder. The entire keg of powder exploded, making a noise so loud it was believed to be a major bomb explosion. The bomb squad from Fort Harrison showed up and police officers from near and far were dispatched to the estate. My mother and I made many pots of coffee and refreshments for the investigators.
This estate was so much a part of Mr.Test and he loved it so much that I often wondered if, during the time I occupied the house, I might sense the presence of his spirit. While this never happened, I am pleased with the fact that he left his imprint on the community in a much bigger and better way by donating the ground for Skiles Test Elementary School and the Skiles Test Nature Park.
This article has been written from my memory and the memories of my siblings whom I consulted with briefly about those enchanting days. As I recall those years in which our family was an integral part of that “House” and everything it entailed, my memories are most pleasant and I sincerely hope that as you read about our experiences, that you too will have a sense of those pleasant and outstanding days in our life and the life of that mysterious House of Blue Lights.