What you see around The Bend today is rooted in its past.
Few attractions bring this to light better than The History Museum, which is on the same campus as the Studebaker National Museum and includes the pristine Oliver Mansion. Its exhibits paint a vivid picture of South Bend and the surrounding area — from prehistory to settlement to the rise of industry with stops along the way. It’s a must-see for any visitor, especially those looking to include a history tour on their itinerary.
Tour a Historic Mansion
History doesn’t get much more vibrant than the mansion.
Once owned by the industrialist J.D. Oliver, it was built in 1895-96. A New York architect designed the 38-room home. Tour it and you’ll find what others have seen — it’s in perfect condition. All the furnishings are original, which offers a rare window into how the Oliver family lived decades later.
Some facts about the mansion:
- It was built with Indiana field stone, which was transported to the site and cut.
- It was one of the first homes in South Bend with electricity.
- More than two acres of Italianate gardens surround the mansion.
- The mansion and gardens are listed on the National Record of Historic places and registered as an American Treasure.
- The mansion was donated in tact, meaning with most of the items inside.
See them While You Can
One stop at The History Museum might not be enough. Several exhibits change, giving visitors a new look every time they make the trip. “World Famous: The Olivers and the American Dream” in the Changing Gallery, taking center stage into March 2021. World Famous takes a deep dive into the Oliver family story, including how its business went international during the 1800s and left a lasting legacy in South Bend.
Other temporary exhibits include:
“Full Circle: Shakespearean Culture at Notre Dame,” a collaboration between the museum and Shakespeare at Notre Dame. This exhibit displays costumes, photographs, props and interactives while looking at the influence of Shakespeare throughout the University’s history. It is on display in the Ernestine M. Raclin Gallery of Notre Dame History until Sept. 7, 2021.
“Votes for Women,” which documents the women’s suffrage movement that culminated in the right to vote.
A Closer Look at the Area’s Growth
Seven rooms of dioramas and interactive displays explain how the St. Joseph River Valley blossomed from dense forest to the age of French exploration and into a thriving Midwest industrial center.
Visitors can “walk” the portage that connected the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. They can see how early settlers lived in the area. This permanent exhibit tells how the native Potawatomi were forcibly removed from the area in the 1830s.
It also touches on the Grand Kankakee Marsh, which was dredged for farmland. An award-winning, 30-minute video documentary in the Free Life Theatre features stories about the African American community in the region from the 1820s through World War I.
Another area explains industrial growth in the late 1800s, including the rise of Studebaker and the Oliver Chilled Plow Works.
Guide yourself through this area so you can take in each display on your own time.
Women’s Baseball in The Bend
Men abroad during World War II sparked an idea for Philip Wrigley – create the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.
Immortalized in the film “A League of Their Own,” the league actually operated for 12 years. Teams propped in cities across the Midwest. South Bend jumped into the game with the South Bend Blue Sox. It was one of the original four tams and stayed in the league for all 12 seasons.
So, basically every participant in the league visited The Bend at some point.
The History Museum’s collection — a repository for the league — includes photographs, programs, film footage, scrapbooks and playing equipment used by teams. It’s a treasure for baseball and The Bend.