Lancaster Township once a bustling center of activity

The Boyd covered bridge was built in the mid-1860s of native lumber sawed nearby, which included oak, poplar, hickory and elm. The cost was $14.50 per thousand feet, and the total cost for the bridge was $900.
The Boyd covered bridge was built in the mid-1860s of native lumber sawed nearby, which included oak, poplar, hickory and elm. The cost was $14.50 per thousand feet, and the total cost for the bridge was $900. Illustration provided.

Originally published Sept. 6, 2004.

Lancaster became the third township in Huntington County when it was organized on May 15, 1837.

It originally contained the areas that later became Polk and Rock Creek townships within its bounds. Lancaster Township is notable not only for its fertile soil, but also for its rich treasure of early history.

It is said that every time an older person dies, a whole library of information disappears as well. Fortunately, there once lived a man in Huntington County who saw the importance of taking the time to collect an abundance of stories from the older people in the area.

His name was Frank Sumner Bash, and his columns containing these stories appeared weekly in the Indiana Herald, from 1922 until his death in 1931.

His subjects were the children of the early settlers in this area, and their stories are wonderful to read.
There are those who question the accuracy of the stories, but it can be pointed out that much of what is recorded in history books is also based on personal recollection to some degree. At any rate, Huntington County is indeed fortunate to have so many glimpses of the early years of life in the wilderness.

Although Joseph Sprowl is credited as the first settler in Lancaster Township, he was actually preceded by Louis Godfroy, of French/Miami descent, who bought land from the government in 1832. He took up residence on a bend in the Salamonie River, which became known as Godfroy's Bend.

The high bluff along the river is said to have once been an Indian lookout. Some time later, John Heiney rode on horseback from Pennsylvania and purchased the land that became widely known as Heiney's Bend. It remains today as one of the most interesting and scenic spots in the county.

This was also the location of a commodious house that was built in the 1830s, and was considered a mansion in its time. It was 52 feet long, had two large fireplaces, doors two inches thick and a large porch with tall pillars made of solid poplar.

Here at the river bend, Heiney constructed a huge flour mill, which was five stories high. At Cincinnati, OH, he paid $275 for special millstones that were 12 inches thick. The stones were imported from France, and were believed to be the best for grinding the highest grade of flour.

The mill was so busy that it ran day and night, but was eventually dismantled. The grand house stood until it was later demolished, and one of the stones from the Heiney mills is still preserved in a monument at the front of Lancaster Cemetery.

The quiet pace of life in small towns today gives scant hint that they were once scenes of bustling activity and merriment. Villages in Lancaster Township included Charleston, New Lancaster, Mt. Etna and Kelso, or Majenica. Stringtown and Loon Creek were other small crossroad centers.

Solomon Shideler laid out the town of New Lancaster in 1836. Its post office was listed as River, for reasons unknown. The village soon had a general store, log school, a doctor and a blacksmith.

John Beal, a shoe cobbler, crafted crude shoes, which fit either left or right feet.

The George Fletcher pottery is notable, as it was the only one known to exist in the county. Mr. Fletcher was remembered for his fine work in making crocks, jugs, vases and even smoking pipes. It would be interesting to know if any of his pieces are still around today.

The Lancaster News was a monthly publication with 400 subscribers, who paid 25 cents a year for a subscription. An edition may be seen in the Indiana Room at the Huntington City-Township Public Library.

Another notable resident was Stanley Allred, who was known nationally for his skills in repairing Stanley Steamer automobiles.

Before the Boyd covered bridge was constructed in the 1860s, people had to cross the river at a ford if the water was low, or be transported across in a dug-out canoe, which could carry seven passengers.

In 1842, Phillip Shutt built a sawmill on the river bend just west of New Lancaster, and in 1853 he added machinery imported from Europe for the purpose of making wool felt and cloth.

The mill was a major supplier of jean cloth for the Union Army during the Civil War, and some cabins for the workers stood nearby. It is said that young Miami Indian girls were recruited to work in the mill from Grant County, and Shutt's son, David, married one of the girls.

Before the equipment was installed in the mill, some residents made elaborate plans to stage a dance, which was to be the social highlight of the year. The big night arrived and the dancing began. However, as the dancers warmed up to do a schottisch, they began to sneeze. As the sneezing increased, it was learned that neighbors who frowned on dancing had sprinkled quantities of red pepper throughout the building, and the merry time was canceled due to the sneezing attacks.

In 1837, Charleston was established, and a plat of 40 lots was recorded in the courthouse. The major enterprise in Charleston was an ashery, which produced "black salts," a substance used in making glass and soap.
There was also a small store with a limited supply of goods, and a barrel of whiskey in the back of the building with a tin cup for patrons to serve themselves.

A justice of the peace maintained order in the town, and when a scheme to make counterfeit coins was discovered, he deputized a posse and captured the culprits. One suspect was found guilty and incarcerated in the old log jail in Huntington, from which he promptly escaped and was never seen or heard from again.

In 1839, Mt. Etna was organized just one mile west and Charleston was vacated. A house still standing on the north side of SR 124 is said to have been the Charleston hotel, called the Hawkins House.

Mt. Etna was established with 74 plots planned around a public square. In the early years, the town had a large three-story gristmill, a hotel, tannery, milliner, drugstore, opera house, several general stores, a tinsmith, blacksmith and a maker or pork barrels. There were also several lodges and churches.

Mt. Etna has had an impressive number of doctors over the years, including doctors Wimmer and Chenoweth, who may be remembered by some readers.

An unusual silkworm industry was in operation for a time, and kept the owner busy gathering mulberry leaves to keep the hungry worms spinning.

Musical mice in the Charles Bain store were also recalled by early residents.

The intensity of political opinions during the Civil War resulted in the murder of William Lowery, a Union soldier who was home on furlough. He was thought to have information about the activities of a secret society in the area that sympathized with the South, called the Knights of the Golden Circle. He was at his home plowing the fields when someone hit him with a club in the head from behind, then slit his throat. His killer was never discovered.

Upon learning of President Ulysses S. Grant's re-election, the townspeople built a huge bonfire on the square to celebrate. As the evening progressed, the men began to toss their hats into the fire until there were no more chapeaus left in town. They later felt bad they they had destroyed the preacher's fancy hat, and took up a collection to replace it.

Among the poignant stories of wonderful buildings that are gone, there is one outstanding exception. It is the sturdy brick Mt. Etna School, which has been beautifully preserved, and now serves as a comfortable residence. An ornately etched design above the door lists 1917 as its date of construction, as does the limestone detail on the front of the building. The attractively landscaped property is an excellent example of successful re-use of a good, well-constructed building.

The town of Kelso was begun in 1856 by the Warren-Huntington plank road. The name was later changed to Majenica in honor of a local Miami chief. In its heyday, the town could claim several doctors, general stores, a post office, a lodge, school and sawmill.

The Majenica sawmill produced most of the huge boards that were used for the plank road. A toll gate was located in Kelso, with a full-time gatekeeper who was paid $1 a day. Due to the swampy conditions in the area, there were also several tile mills in the township.

Religious services in the early days were frequent, lengthy and well-attended. Some denominations remain strong today, but the church and school buildings believed to have been Lutheran are now being used as farm storage buildings on county road 200S.

The old cemetery still stands alongside the road.

The German Baptists had their communion services in the Jacob Heaston barn, which was said to be the largest in the county. Some members came from long distances and even slept overnight in the barn. On one memorable night, the quiet of the service was interrupted by an uproarious bellowing of a monster-size bull that was stabled in the lower level of the barn.

Whenever the elders checked the bull he would be perfectly quiet, but when the service resumed so would the bellowing. The mystery was later solved when it was learned that several mischievous boys had been prodding the bull with a pitchfork to create the disturbance.

Soon after the pioneers had erected their cabins, they began building their churches and schools. The town of New Lancaster has had two log schools, one of frame and another of brick.

The log schools were often crude, and one old-timer remembered that their building had paper in the windows, which was often eaten by the cows. The teacher would have to shoo away the cows and replace the paper.

A reminiscence written by Isaac Brumbaugh in 1914 recalled:

"It was in the fall of 1846, in December, that I went to school in New Lancaster to Jacob Shideler, teacher. The schoolhouse was a small log cabin. One end of the house was made so that logs could be pulled in to build a fire to keep the house warm.

"The chimney was made of split sticks and plastered inside and out. The first half of the floor was clay, tamped down solid, the second half was split puncheons, smoothed with a broad axe, for the fine folks to sit on.

"Seats were made of split slabs, smoothed on one side to sit on, and two kegs were on each end of each seat. The door was made of split clapboards, hung on wooden hinges.

"The latch string hung on the outside of the door. The windows were made of greased paper, holes were cut out of the chinking, and paper was pasted over the holes to keep the cold out and throw in the light."

The early one-room schoolhouse teachers ran the gamut from those who were highly educated and competent, to some with questionable credentials.

One such teacher was remembered for keeping a large cow horn and some sheep wool in his desk. He terrorized the younger students by telling them that if they did not behave, he would blow the sheep wool "clear through their heads."

In some cases, the teachers' capabilities were determined by their success in whipping the big boys in the school.

One early educator recalled an interview with some lawyers in Huntington who, after asking him some basic questions as the number of letters in the alphabet and how many vowels there were, declared him qualified and issued him a teaching certificate.

It was the custom at Christmas to lock the teacher out of the school until they provided a holiday treat. One teacher surprised his students by passing out whiskey diluted with water and sweetened with sugar. This was probably not too different from a hot toddy, a home remedy taken for colds, but it must have shocked some parents at the time.

Another tale concerned several children, who were so frightened to face their teacher without knowing their multiplication tables that they spent most of the day in the woods by a fire in the extreme cold, drilling one another with the tables.

The early district schools were named Smith, Zook, German, No. 4, Batson, Ream, Stringtown, Paul, Loon Creek and Buzzard.

Most of the land was covered with enormous trees, and at one time there were six sawmills busily buzzing away in the township. One gigantic walnut tree on the Heiney farm was found to measure seven feet across at the stump. A huge elm along the river had a circumference of 27 feet, and a poplar beam in the Abe Hoover barn was 50 feet long and 15 inches square.

Wild animals were common, and included bears, herds of deer and great flocks of wild turkeys. Monstrous snakes were everywhere, and had a fondness for hiding in cabins.

A large beaver dam was located in the swampy area along the Lancaster road, and it is difficult to imagine the fright of John Fulton, who spent an entire night in a tree surrounded by a pack of wolves that came so close he had to club them.

Two miles south of Lancaster, a Canada lynx was shot by a man named Hod Breisford, which was put on display at a Mt. Etna store.

There are many other Bash stories, such as the tale of the Jacob Heaston's family wagon trip to Wayne County to make apple butter, as apples were not yet available here. Heaston also talked of walking behind a shovel plow all day, managing to cultivate 10 to 12 acres.

Another story tells of John Boyd's sheep getting out and being penned up by neighbor John Ruggles, which the law permitted at that time. The case was taken to court, and when Ruggles won he had a large bonfire celebration.
However, Boyd won an appeal, and then it was his turn to rejoice with a party for the entire neighborhood. It is not known if there were other appeals or if the confused sheep stayed put from that point on.

Another story told of an eight-point hitch driven by Luke Wiles to a political rally in Wabash, where Mt. Etna men drove a total of 40 horses in the parade.

Dr. Isaac Brown of Mt. Etna recalled a family trip by wagon to Marion during the Buchanan campaign in 1856, which featured the firing of a cannon.

John Zook described a large mill on Majenica Creek near the Marion road that produced many barrels of linseed oil. Flaxseed cakes were a byproduct, which were eaten by cows and young boys.

Humor was no doubt a means of lightening the burdens of pioneer life, and many stories describe contests to see which man could jump the farthest or carry the heaviest load.

Neighbors came together to share the task at hand, and celebrated with gusto when it was completed.

One incident that was at first thought to be the drowning of Cornelius Smuck when he fell into the river, turned out to be amusing when he came to the surface "smack-dab" under his hat, which he had lost when he toppled out of his canoe.

Old-timers also told of finding large quantities of prehistoric artifacts throughout the area. A nice collection of arrowheads, which Roy Whitmore found on his farm near Lancaster, is on display at the Huntington County Historical Museum.

A number of tiles from the Majenica tile mill are also exhibited, as well as portraits of a pioneer couple named Goodmiller, thought to be from Lancaster Township.

And for those who wish to research the history of their property, an 1866 map of Lancaster Township is featured, along with a current county plat map.