OF THE NORTH MANCHESTER HISTORICAL SOCIETY, INC.
VOLUME IV, NUMBER 2 (May 1987)
THE WHISTLES OF OUR FOREFATHERS
A story of the manufacturing industries of North
of the past and present. Reproduced from an
compiled by William E. Billings, 1950
The short and almost instantaneous toot of the whistle
of the Peabody Seating Company is all that is left of
the chorus of many a century or more ago.
Electricity has taken the place of steam power in the
other manufacturing establishments. It was during
the war time days of planned economy that the late
Thomas A. Peabody, head of the company, ordered that the
long drawn blast of the whistle , the habit of years
with local manufacturing concerns, should be shortened
to a mere toot. It is possible that consideration
of late sleepers’ nerves as well as thoughts of economy
may have something to do with the order. Anyway,
all that is left of that once active chorus of factory
whistles has been shortened down to a hardly noticeable
And in the old days, as if all these whistles were not
enough to keep the community nerves on edge, there were
twenty passenger trains through her each day, six over
the Big Four and fourteen over the Wabash, whose long
toot coming into town and toot-te-toot-te-toot going out
kept life from being quiet.
Steam plants with whistles that awoke the sleepers and
set the echoes re-echoing fifty years ago, about the
Turn of the Century, included many of the real old
timers. There was the Jesse Miller Foundry and
Pump Factory; the Ulrey Saw and Planing Mill; the Scott
Dunbar Heading Mill; the J. W. Strauss Saw Mill; J. A.
Browne Wagon Wood Factory; Browne-Mills Electric
Company; Harry Townsend Wood Working Factory; the Eel
River Creamery; Syracuse Screen & Grill Company; Tom
Miller Gun Shop; the Big Four Elevator operated by H.
Kinsey; the Wabash-Vandalia Elevator operated by I. B.
Wright; the North Manchester Water Works, and a
considerable number of others now lost to the memory of
Both the North Manchester Journal and the Rays of Light,
from which The News-Journal of today is a legal and
lineal descendant, for some time printed their newspaper
editions by steam power, but there were no whistles
attached to the boilers, and the papers had to depend
upon their news columns to make what noise was needed.
Nor should forgetfulness take away the memory of the
squeaky whistle of Dan Sheller’s popcorn wagon that
steadily screeched through the Saturday afternoon hours.
A little to the east of town, down on the Banks of Eel
River, the stillness of the summer mornings was broken
by the whistle at the Michael Geik Tile Mill, and during
the threshing season there was a good natured but
nevertheless active rivalry between “Thresher Jake”
Ulrey and Stephen Heeter as to which could blow the
earliest and longest. Even at that time advanced
age had forced “Thresher Jake” from the footboards of
his engine, but he was none the less an interested
observer and attentive listener as his son, Joe, tooted
the whistle to call in the hands. And through it
all, winter of summer, “Steve” Heeter was never seen
without his red bandana handkerchief neatly knotted
about his neck.
The whistle at the Water Works, along with a bell
perched on an iron tower at the intersection of Market
and Main Streets, constituted the fire alarm system.
By and by as electricity took the place of steam at the
water pumping station a “Wild Cat” whistle was installed
at the Electric Light Station. It blew so hard and
so loud that the sound went away up in the air to come
down with more noise in the country than in town.
One calm peaceful and silent night it set up its howl.
The watchman at the electric station could not stop it.
The populace, urban and rural, garbed in nightshirts or
less, turned out en masse. And it still howled,
though there was nothing still about it. A slight
shower earlier in the evening dampened the whistle cord,
the shrinkage tightened the cord enough to set the
However in those good old days plenty of noise was
considered essential for a good fire. The sound of
a fire alarm was the signal for most of the whistles to
blow themselves out of steam, and according to Si
Walters, one of the old time firemen, the added
commotion seemed to help a fire into being a grand
success, which most of them were.
It was about midnight, Monday, April 25, 1898, that the
Water Works whistle sent out a call that touched more
homes than had ever been reached by a fire call.
That was when Company D of the Indiana National Guard
was called into service for the Spanish-American War.
The call had been expected for several days, and
arrangements were made that a long blast on the whistle
should announce its arrival. A little before
midnight the call came, and John Colclesser, engineer,
pulled the cord that set the signal going, bringing
dread and sadness into several hundred homes about North
Manchester. Marked activity followed and early in
the forenoon the company, under command of Captain B. F.
Clemens, headed by the North Manchester band, marched to
the Big Four station, there to take the train for
Indianapolis. On the following Thursday, The
Journal said “fully eight thousand people were at the
station to extend good wished and bid “fair”well to the
war going soldiers.
The Saturday evening before there had been a public
meeting at the opera house to pledge unqualified support
to the cause and to the Company. Charles A. Sala
called this meeting, but no speakers had been secured,
so brief talks were made by John W. Winesburg, D. W.
Krisher and Jerome Wellman. On Sunday members of
Company D acted as escort to the Grand Army of the
Republic to the Lutheran Church. Monday evening
the ladies of the Woman’s Relief Corps served a grand
supper, the appetites of the young soldiers having been
whetted by a strenuous drill on Main Street.
Fortune favored Company D, for fully loyal though its
members were, they were not called to leave the United
States. In camp for some time as Company D of the
157th Indiana at St. Petersburg, Florida, the men were
used to guard the water supply, a matter of considerable
importance at that time. Then one day the call
came to “Board Ship,” but about the time the men were
all aboard the Captain’s horse fell off the boat and the
company was ordered to disembark. Before the horse
could be dried and another call issued, peace had been
declared and the war was over.
Today all of these whistles, excepting that at the
Peabody factory, have been permanently silenced.
Shortly after 1900 some of the users of smaller power
turned to gasoline engines. With the coming of an
all day electric current, electricity generally took the
place of the chug-chug engines as well as most of the
remaining steam engines. Most of these steam
whistles blew their last note, if not in silence and
unheard, at least without making of it an even recorded
The whistle at the Scott Dunbar Heading Mill was an
exception. According to record, it was on
Wednesday evening, June 28, 1906, that it tooted its
last toot. Next morning the machinery was being
dismantled, loaded on cars, and shipped to Quigley,
Arkansas, where the Joseph Bonner Saw Mill was located,
and where timber for butter bug heading was more
plentiful. A. C. Willis accompanied the machinery
to put it into service, and Dode Reed and A. Wiford with
their families moved to Quigley to operate it.
Scott Dunbar had brought the factory here in 1881 and in
the 25 years following, made many thousands of heads for
butter tubs. Twice the factory was burned, once in
1886 and again in the fall of 1897, but was promptly
rebuilt after each fire.
Those good old days were long and busy. The
workday at the turn of the Century was generally ten
hours, 6:30 in the morning to 5:00 or 5:30 in the
evening depending on whether half an hour or an hour was
taken off at noon. Occasionally as a special
concession, quitting time was set up to four o’clock on
Saturday afternoon. There were fewer vacations,
less money, but people ate fully as well or better, had
meat a little oftener, spread their butter a little
thicker on their bread or real buckwheat cakes, and were
supremely happy in not knowing any different.
There was no job insurance except personal ability.
No old age pensions; no social welfare.
In the last half century and more of industrial
progress, the North Manchester community, like most
others, has seen much of the old set aside for something
new, for something often times before undreamed.
Changing from the swaddling clothes of a wide place in
the countr4y road into the somewhat oversized and
sometimes rather uncomfortable garments of a good-sized
town has not been made without some losses.
Whether we could have kept all of the desirable
advantages of a primitive community life and at the same
time enjoy all the conveniences of the modern age may be
open to question. Certain it is that in these
modern days we do miss the old time friendly spirit.
Not that we are intentionally less friendly or kindly to
those about us, but because of our modern ways we have
so little chance to know our nearest neighbors, or to
form really neighborly friendships with them. This
is only one of our possibly many losses. We would
not want to go back to our old ways of living, but in
our haste to grab for the new, we may have let slip many
of the worthwhile features of the old.