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of the North Manchester Historical Society, Inc.
Volume XXII Number 2 May 2005

The Honorable John Comstock

T. B.Helm in his 1884 History of Wabash County begins his biography of John Comstock saying "The History of Chester Township and of Wabash County would be incomplete without a sketch of the life of the late Hon. John Comstock, who in some respects was the most remarkable man ever having resided here."

The Comstocks immigrated from Austria. John's father, John, was one of three brothers who came to the New World when their lives were threatened in Austria. John's mother was Hope Fisk. John was born in Rhode Island on February 21, 1802 on the Comstock Homestead. He had three brothers, Thomas, William and Ichabod, and two sisters, Ann and Mercy. The father moved to New York and invested in a cotton factory but was conned by his partners, left holding the bag and became bankrupt. Following a series of losses and the death of his wife, he eventually bound out his three younger sons.

When John was sixteen years old he first came to realize that he had been bound out and he left his master at once and went to Lockport, New York. He got work chopping (trees) at $5 an acre, boarding one mile from his work. He got his own breakfast, took his lunch and missed only one day his first winter. In the summer he worked as a farm laborer, chopped the following winter. Although he was able to save some funds, his health declined, and he decided that his only option was to prepare to be a teacher. He arranged to care for some stock in exchange for his board and began to attend school both summer and winter. He walked two miles to and from school and studied during lunch and into the night. He gained admission to high school but there his health weakened again and he spent three months as an invalid. He tried to work again without much success and decided to gather what funds he had and go West.

He reached Bristol, Ohio, with three shillings in his pocket and bought the few things required for teaching school. His first job he received $8 a month and board around the district. He taught both summers and winters for three years and then took a school which was considered the most unmanageable in the area. After some discipline with a birch sprout it became quite a pleasant school and he was there three years until 1828. On New Year's Day, 1826 he married Miss Salena Newhouse of Wayne County, Ohio. Also, the same winter, he bought a quarter section of land near his school house, erected a cabin and began clearing the land. In the spring, to his neighbors surprise, he planting five acres of potatoes. In the fall he sold the potatoes at 50 cents a bushel to the contractors working on the canal and had enough money to make the next payment on his land.

Soon he bought the second quarter section of land and paid for it with the products of it. He went into the business of digging wells working with a nephew. There was little money in circulation and their payment was often in young stock. John's wife took on the care of his share of the animals. In 1835, with John Newhouse, he attended some land sales at Ft. Wayne, Indiana, and purchased 80 acres just west of present day Liberty Mills paying $10 an acre. When he returned home, his wife said that if he was going to move West they should move right away. Since his farm was in good condition, he was able to find a buyer at $45 per acre and in the spring of 1836 they made sale, loaded a big wagon with their household goods, requiring two yoke of oxen, his wife drove the single wagon carrying the family. The hired man drove the six cows which supplied them milk for the trip. They were twenty seven days on the trip, making only four or five miles a day crossing the black swamp.

They reached the banks of the Eel River on June 26, 1836 and found that the cabin they thought was on their land was not and was occupied. There was an unfinished cabin on their land and they threw brush to make a temporary roof, put up a blanket for a door and contrived some beds, made a fire on the ground near a corner and moved in. Next they planted some potatoes and had a good crop in the fall

They lived in Pottawatomie Indian territory and one experience in 1836 was rather tense. John was about two miles away making marsh hay when a group of Indian warriors in war paint and somewhat drunk came galloping along. One leader came into the cabin and, seeing bottles of medicine on the shelf, demanded some. Mrs. Comstock refused. He swung his tomahawk over her head and threatened to kill her. She said she would call "white man" and went to the door calling John. He left, mounted his pony and rode away. These men were on their way to a burial of one of their group killed on the way home from Ft. Wayne after receiving their annuity money.

The next year the Comstocks built a double hewed-log cabin with porch between and used one cabin for storage. John also bought forty acres of land, taking a portion of it to lay out in lots for the town of Liberty Mills. Another project during the winter months was to drive out two droves of hogs from further east and sell them to settlers around the area. In the spring of 1938, he with a young nephew drove out a herd of cattle and sold them in the area - even as far as Michigan City. Since the nearest grist mill was then at Waterford requiring a long journey over a blazed trail he soon considered developing his own mill race. He built a sawmill first, in the winter of 1837-38 and a grist mill the following winter. Just as he finished the sawmill, it burned to the ground, but he quickly built another. The grist mill was convenient and superior to most and many settlers brought their grain. As late as 1852 settlers sixty miles away were coming to the Comstock mill.

In 1839 he set up a tannery. Demand grew rapidly and by 1844 he had sixty vats with his brother, Ichabod, in charge.

In 1841 he had a carding machine in operation in a building below the bridge. Later that same year he built a distillery and this was the only enterprise which he came to regret. The original plan was a wise one. Large amounts of corn and rye were used in the distilling process and he planned to use the waste from the process to feed his hogs and cattle. The products of the distillery, however, were not so positive . One rather amusing story is told of one distillery employee who often drank until the morning he came in to find a very dead rat floating in the brew and never drank spirits from that day on. The final blow to John was when his own sons refused to have anything to do with the distillery business. John later called it a dammed business, shut it down and refused to sell the building. It stood until it fell down.

Another unsuccessful venture was sheep raising. He brought a large flock of sheep from the East but they were quickly threatened by wolves. He had to have someone herd them during the day and enclose them in a 12-foot fence at night. So he sold the sheep in small lots to anyone who would buy them. In 1848 he rebuilt the sawmill, putting in a turbine wheel.

Another person claimed a royalty was due and the case went to the U.S. Court at Indianapolis. John supplied proof that the wheel was put in before the plaintiff took out his patent and the case went in his favor. In 1849-50 he built a new and much improved grist mill and moved a carding machine into the former building as well as some improved textile machines which operated until 1866 when the building was destroyed by fire.

John Comstock regularly took leadership in the effort to built more and better roads. He tried several times to organize a group to build a plank road connecting La Gro and Liberty Mills, with a fork to North Manchester but couldn't seem to get cooperation. Next, he tried to get some from Huntington to cooperate to build from that town to Liberty Mills. Finally, in 1851 he got an agreement. At that time La Gro was handling more grain than either Wabash or Huntington. The road was completed in 1854. Later, in 1871, he was a leader in building the Eel River Valley Railroad.

At about 1851 a gang of organized horse thieves, robbers and counterfeiters who were troubling the country from Ohio to Illinois and who plotted to intercept John Comstock when he was carrying money for his payroll or others who had considerable money on their persons at times. In fact, the Comstock store was robbed one night of goods valued at about $1000 but no one knew about it because they thought the secret might make it easier to catch the thieves. Meantime, John Comstock, Thorn brothers (businessmen) and John's son-in-law, John J. Shaubert and his three sons set up a detective force to track the thieves. In less than one year this group had the names of about 200 of the crime ring, some of whom were local persons. Charges sent two horse thieves to State prison, plus a neighbor's son for the store robbery, a minister for planning the burglary and a counterfeiter. In addition, one forfeited his bond and another had a fatal accident just before his trial. Several men in the community settled their affairs and left the area. Persons traveling alone on roads breathed easier for quite a period of time.

Judge Comstock (as he was commonly called) was very active in organizing the Wabash County Fair which opened first in 1852. The Comstocks always exhibited their livestock. John bought cattle from the finest herds to improve his own herd. He bought Shorthorns in Kentucky, New York State and the Province of Quebec until his own herd was the best in the area. Then his annual sales brought large crowds and enabled many in this State to improve their herd. His estate sale included fifty-one cattle which sold for nearly $5000 total.

At one time, Judge Comstock owned 1600 acres of land but he sold it bit by bit as buyers were willing to meet his high prices until about 600 acres were left. In 1869 he sold his mills and the water power in order to spent more time with his fine livestock. For the last ten years this was his only business and it gave him more pleasure than any other. He took an active part in every political campaign. He held several political positions during his lifetime. He left a position as township Judge when he moved to Indiana. Here he became Postmaster, was appointed Commissioner for Northern Wabash County, then Probate Judge 1846-1852, to the State Legislature 1858-1859 and during the War of the Rebellion he loaned money to the State to kept the government going and arm and equip the soldiers of the State.

The Comstocks had seven children. Anna married John J. Shaubert and they moved to Minnesota. Sarah married William Ross who died in 1862; and then married Robert Cason who died in 1880. Thomas married Miss Elizabeth Thorn in 1852, became a Methodist minister and died in 1872. William married Miss Elizabeth Place in 1858, entered the ministry but his health failed and he retired to a farm where he died of consumption in 1875. Henry married Miss Melissa Bender and lived on a farm just south of Liberty Mills. Jane married James Best and lived on a farm east of Liberty Mills. John, Jr. died of pleurisy in 1846. The Comstock family had for several generations been Quakers. In the spring of 1842 Judge Comstock and his wife joined the Methodist Episcopal church and were members until 1846 when the Conference of that church declared against the manufacture and sale of "ardent spirits". After he sold all the equipment from the distillery and refused to sell it he later rejoined that church. Meantime, his wife died in 1878.

Because of his various businesses, Judge Comstock always employed a sizeable group of workers. For about twenty years many local farmers worked at harvesttime to buy winter clothes. He was known to pay fair cash wages. It was said that a needy person was never turned away. So when he became ill there were many expressions of dismay. In the spring of 1879 he suffered a slight stroke but he recovered quickly and seemed to be in good health. However, in September, he complained one day of a pain in his shoulder, had liniment rubbed on it, walked about the farm and visited with his daughter, Anna, who was there. At 4 p.m. while sitting in his chair, talking, his heart failed and his lost consciousness. His family was called and he died in the arms of his grandson, Harry Comstock.

John Comstock was buried on October 3, 1879 in the Greenwood cemetery, carved from his own land; a beautiful hill just west of Liberty Mills between the grave of his wife and his youngest son. Others of the family now lie around them, though it is believed that some stones commemorate persons not actually buried there. The Comstock Homestead stands just east of Highway 13 as one approaches Liberty Mills. John Comstock's significance for the growth of Liberty Mills cannot be questioned. But, as years went by his complete control of the area led some to leave Liberty Mills and move to North Manchester. So while Liberty Mills was the leading town in the early years, as time went on and the price of land in North Manchester was cheaper, Manchester took the lead. When the railroad built a station at North Manchester it was the final step in the growth of that town and the decline of Liberty Mills. Judge Comstock deserves a great deal of respect for many benefits giving by his ideas and his work for the whole area. To quote one historian, "He was a very useful member of the community,"