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Jefferson Township: ghost towns and scenic drives

Originally published March 3, 2005

Long before the white settlers came, a frequently used trail ran along the Salamonie River.

It was known as the Godfroy Trail, or trace, and ran between Chief Francis Godfroy's reservation further southeast along the Salamonie River to his principal village near present-day Peru.

The trail became the River Road, and it remains today one of the most scenic drives in the county.

It was also along the river where George Helms, the first white settler, established his home in the dense forest in 1834. Helms later sold this land in Section 12 to the Wiley family, and an interesting old house still remains on the property today.

Helms was soon joined by Peter Wire, a veteran of General St. Clair's army, which was defeated by Miami Chief Little Turtle's warriors in a major battle.

After first building a crude log cabin for his family in Section 3 (along present Ind.-124), Wire later constructed the first hewed log house in the township.

Miami Indians still lived nearby, and would often visit Mrs. Wire, as they had a special fascination with her homemade lye soap. In 1836, Baby Lavina Wire became the first white child to be born in the township.

The Wire homestead was the site of the first religious worship, which was led by Rev. Pugsley, a United Brethren circuit rider. Sadly this home, which was so important to the history of the township, was demolished in recent years.

Peter Wire led the efforts to organize the township, which was accomplished in March 1843. Its boundaries are: Salamonie Township to the east, Wayne Township to the west, Lancaster Township to the north and Grant County to the south.
By 1850, all of its 23,040 acres had been sold, and the going rate was $2 per acre.

The "1887 History of Huntington County" describes Jefferson Township as a rich farming district with "commodious barns, elegant residences and well-stocked fields." It went on to note that the presence of many schoolhouses and churches showed that the intellectual and spiritual welfare of the people had not been neglected.

Again, glimpses of the pioneer life are found in the wonderful interviews with F.S. bash, which were printed weekly from 1922 until 1931 in the Huntington Herald.

One major task involved clearing the dense forests. Immense trees were chopped by hand, and Henry Trout recalled that he was paid $3 an acre for putting ground in shape for a crop.

Trout stated that walnut logs were not worth much in those days, and remembered being happy when John Good paid him $1 for each walnut log that was three feet across. Trout had to drag the logs a distance of seven miles to Good's sawmill at Warren.

That mill had an "up and down saw," also described by some wags as "an up today and down tomorrow" saw. One mill operator stated that the saw was so slow he would get it started and then go take a nap, as the saw would make a pounding noise when it got through a log and wake him up.

As with other townships, the settlement of Jefferson Townnship reveals a story of arduous labor, infallible strength and courage combined with an adventurous spirit. The indomitable spirit of these people is difficult to comprehend today.

Imagine wrestling giant logs all day in a neighborhood log-rolling, and then finish the day off with jumping contests. Great pride was taken in physical prowess, which was often proven by wrestling, weightlifting and, of course, long and high jumps.

The pioneer lifestyle was exemplary in so many ways. First and foremost was their faith in God, which often led them to erect a church when they barely had roofs over their own heads.

They cared deeply for one another, and when a neighbor needed help, their own work was put aside in order to help. When there was illness, they sat by the sick person's bedside day and night. However, pioneer medicine was not always such a positive thing, as doctors varied widely in their education and skills.

Some doctors strictly advised against giving the sick person any fresh air or water.

One story told of a man who was deathly sick and extremely thirsty. When the people who were sitting up with him were sound asleep, he dragged himself out to the well, where he drank profusely of the cool water. He fell asleep there and was found the next day. The doctor was amazed at his improvement, but his secret trip to the well was never divulged.

Mrs. Jacob Lawrence recalled her family's trip from Ohio to Jefferson Township. It was a distance of 200 miles and it took them two weeks. They came in two covered wagons with a herd of Durham cattle in between the wagons.

When the family stopped one night en route, her mother prepared pancakes for the family, but was dismayed to find that she had served the oil used for greasing the wagon wheels instead of syrup. It was even more amusing to discover that their father had been so hungry that he ate the "oiled pancakes" without noticing the difference.

Lydia Hyatt was one of 10 children in an early pioneer family, and she remembered how the children would help to spin and weave. She stated, "We always kept a few sheep to have wool for homespun winter wear and we raised our own flax from which we made summer clothes, sheets and pillowslips. We had two big wheels and two small ones and could turn out lots of goods. We wove as high as 10 yards a day and we did our own coloring too. We used indigo, copperas, walnut bark and hulls and for a nice shade of yellow we used peach leaves. I remember I was eight-years-old before I had my first store-bought calico."

People today who casually discard a pair of shoes if they become slightly worn out of style might ponder how much the pioneers cherished their shoes. Mrs. Hyatt recalled that "our shoes were awful clumsy, hand-made calf-skin and we had to be careful and save them all we could. We went barefooted all summer except just when we were in church. The way we did was to carry our shoes under our arms until we struck town, then stop and put them on. We'd take them off at about the same place on the way home."

The pioneer diet was limited in variety, to say the least. Mrs. Hyatt recalled they rarely had anything to eat made from wheat flour except on Sunday mornings, and "how we youngn's looked forward to the morning when we would have white biscuits and coffee. The Sunday dinner would be the same as any other dinner: corn bread, potatoes and squash baked in the ashes and probably something boiled in a pot hanging over the fireplace. In those days we couldn't get to Huntington often, for it took us days to make the trip."

One of the most interesting and picturesque places in the township is the former site of Bellville. It was named for James Stewart, a Scottish immigrant who was a blacksmith and a bell maker.

Sources say that as early as 1834, Gabriel Swihart built a log dam there in the river and shortly thereafter constructed a sawmill at the site.

In 1849, James Taylor constructed a four-story grist mill with lumber cut from the sawmill. The excellent timber in the mill included three 40-foot beams, which were 14 inches thick. Its hard flint stone burrs were imported from France.

The upper stories were used for grain storage, and farmers occasionally slept there overnight while waiting for their grain to be processed. Some logs from the original dam may still survive in the river, as well as an interesting fish ladder at the end of the dam.

The mill survived several fires and the 1913 flood, but was finally destroyed by another fire in 1955.

Bellville was once the site of a grocery store, post office, blacksmith shop, school and a Christian church. The church was moved to a nearby farm, where it now stands in ruins.

Bellville was also a favorite site for baptisms in the river. When Columbus "Lum" Myers was so sick that he was not expected to live, it was discovered that he had never been baptized.

Although it was a very cold December, the neighbors carried him out to a wagon, bundled him up and hauled him to the river for baptism.

After Lum was dunked in the frigid water, the preacher seemed to lose his train of thought and did not move or speak for some time. Finally, when one of the women present shouted at her husband to "do something!" the preacher came out of his trance and completed the baptism.

Amazingly, Lum not only recovered from his "dunking" but continued to live for many more years.

The Bellville area was also a favorite place for pioneers to picnic and drink from a sulphur spring nearby.

A short distance to the west is the old Bellville District School. It was built in 1897 and retains many special decorative details. Other district schools in the township included Ford, Christman, Center, Otterbein, Purviance, Gundy, Pleasant Plain and Bowman.

Hyatt recalled attending school in a log building where "the teacher, Veze Price, kept a bundle of gads [sticks] ready for use at any time," much to the consternation of the students.

The Bowman school still stands in Section 6 (500W and 700S), a mute and forlorn reminder of happy students at play, ciphering matches, spelling bees, last-day celebrations and an incredible basic education in only eight years.

The Civil War was a time of strong political opinions and animosity. Tradition tells the story of James Taylor, who died in 1863. When the funeral party arrived at the West Union Church, they found the church locked and they were refused entrance because Mr. Taylor was a Democrat.

A kindly neighbor allowed the funeral to be held in his barn, where the preacher spoke so long in the cold that Taylor's widow became so chilled that she died six months later.

One of the most intriguing tales in county history concerns a young woman, Mary Ellen Wise, who claimed her residence as Jefferson Township, Huntington County, Indiana.

As the story goes, Mary Ellen's parents had died and so she decided to join her brother and enlist in the war, disguising the fact that she was a girl. She participated in several battles and kept her secret until she was injured and sent home.

She later joined another regiment, but received a more severe wound. She was dismissed from the army and denied her pay, but some records seem to show that after a visit with President Abraham Lincoln, her back payments were approved.

There are questions concerning the accuracy of this story, but space limitations do not permit more details, some of which may be found in Howard Houghton's "Village" columns.
The first obligation of any would-be historian should be accuracy, and while every effort is made to be correct in these articles, varying accounts of events and locations create a challenge.

An earlier account of William Lowery's murder was thought to have occurred in Lancaster Township, and happened because he was a Union soldier. Additional information now finds that it actually happened in Jefferson Township and the motive was a domestic situation.

Further information has also found that the body discovered on the William Bowman farm was near a spring along Pond Creek in Jefferson Township, not Rock Creek. Corrections and additional information are always welcome by readers.

Many early settlers in the township were Quakers. Benny Satterthwaite was a colorful character and an ardent believer in the Quaker faith. He followed the tradition of opposing slavery and showing great concern for the well-being of the blacks.

Records in the Indiana Room show that he established two graveyards on the south side of Pond Creek in Section 7.
One cemetery was set aside "for the purpose of burial of colored people, descendants of Africans, mulattoes and negroes." It was deeded on Nov. 23, 1850, with the stipulation that the county commissioners were "to hold in trust these grounds forever for the prescribed use and never should they be sold or conveyed for any other purpose whatever."

Tradition states that there were at least seven burials in the cemetery, but there is no discernible sign of its existence today.

Jefferson is the township with the most ghost towns in the county. Pleasant Plain was the only one that was platted, and it was located at the present intersection of 900S and 500W.

It was platted in 1875, and eight streets were laid out. It was first called Nixville by Charlie Nix of Huntington, and later nicknamed Niptight for the oil man's propensity to "imbibe in strong spirits."

In its heyday, Pleasant Plain had three blacksmith shops, a doctor, barber, three general stores, a sawmill, drugstore, a two-story brick schoolhouse with 80 pupils and a hoop factory and sawmill, for which 5,000 feet of logs were floated down Pond Creek.

A singing school and band added entertainment, and Levi Hoopengarner advertised fine ice cream available at his store.

There were three churches: Wesleyan, Quaker and the Methodists, which was later torn down and rebuilt as the United Methodist Church at Jefferson Center. It is remarkable that no sign of this once bustling little town remains today.

In her book, "Ghost Towns of Huntington County," Doris Chambers notes that gas was first discovered in Indiana in 1886, and as gas was the primary interest, wells were often abandoned when they produced oil instead of gas. But the value of oil was later recognized, and by 1905, more than 10 million barrels were produced each day in the state.

Jefferson Township had the best wells in the county. One well was located one-and-one-half miles north of Milo, and produced 200 barrels a day. In 1903, Section 33 had 48 producing wells, with an average of seven barrels a day.

The ghost town of Milo sprung up on the Huntington-Grant County line (125W and 1200S). It once had a post office in the general store, blacksmith shop and the mill.

Liza Hefner, a young woman in the neighborhood, was known as "lucky go-devil dropper." (A go-devil was a weight formerly dropped in a bored hole (as of an oil well) to set off an explosion.) She would deposit the go-devil into the well and then run as fast and as far away as possible before the explosion.

A Friends' church stood at the west edge of the town.

The end of the oil boom also brought the demise of Milo, and all that now remains is one house, which had previously been the general store.

Troy City was located on present Ind.-218 west of 400W, and owes its beginnings to the Troy Oil Company. A tragic murder occurred there as a result of a drunken spat, which caused the death of one young father and the imprisonment of another.

When the store building was razed, workers were surprised to learn that the spittoon had covered a hole in the floor where a counterfeit machine was hidden.

The machine had made "under-sized half dollars" and was later confiscated by "government men."

One house from the Troy City era remains, and the Plummer's Chapel building is now a private home west of the town site.

An enjoyable tour with Roger VanWinkle some time ago revealed a great deal of Jefferson Township history.
He shared a story of Aunt Mag Roberts' farmstead, which was an Underground Railroad station, with the next stop being at Roanoke.

The Roberts house is gone, but the old barn still stands just west of 300W as it crosses Interstate 69.

VanWinkle described a visit from Bishop Milton Wright, who came to dedicate the Otterbein church at the intersection of SR 218 and 300W. He pointed out the house where the bishop stayed for a week, and mentioned that Wright later moved to Ohio, where he was promoted to a higher position.
He encountered some difficulty with church members, however, and was almost "kicked out of the church" - not because of his actions but because of his sons. It seems they had some crazy notion that they wanted to fly.

You guessed it - he was the father of Wilbur and Orville Wright.

No story of Jefferson Township would be complete without mention of the famous old oak tree that stood in the middle of the road on 300W near 800S. It was a landmark for many years, and no one knows for sure when it was cut down, but it appears to have been sometime in the early 1940s.

A marker stands at the site of the Jefferson Township School, and includes a picture of the building. The Jefferson Spartans had many great basketball teams, and their colors were green and white. Tony Chambers is remembered as a good player despite the fact that he had only one arm.

Ben Biliter was a native of Jefferson Township and was the founder of the Farmer's Guide, a publication that enjoyed a large circulation for many years. He is also remembered for his early conservation efforts in planting hundreds of trees in various county locations.

There are many other stories that could be told - of the children who were treed by wild hogs; the 10-foot-long snake shot out of a tree, which was found to have gorged on 28 birds; and the wolves and farm dogs that took turns chasing one another at the John Pinkerton farm; and Modoc, the runaway elephant that passed through the township - but they will have to be told another time.