Source: NMHS Newsletter, February 1988
LIBERTY MILLS AND ITS
From Tales of the Old Days by W.E. Billings
The early days of Liberty Mills and John Comstock are so closely interwoven that a story of the one is a story of the other, for John Comstock both made and then as nearly killed Liberty Mills as it comes within the province of one man to kill a town. He made it because of an untiring energy and a scope of vision beyond that of any of the men about there in his day, and he killed it by the one mistake of wanting to control the town he had made, operating it as a one man town. But he was not to be blamed for that. Early history speaks of men who started towns as the “proprietors” of the town, and then as now the word proprietor carried with it the idea of management. John Comstock made the town because he dreamed of great things, and worked to fulfill his dreams. He killed its chance of being the trading center of the community by wanting to control its business, and by stifling legitimate competition by his powerful will and more powerful means, for money and credit amounted to much in those days, possibly even more than today.
John Comstock was born in Rhode Island in 1792. His mother died when he was a child, and he was “bound out” by his father. At sixteen, large for his age, weighing 160, he broke away from his bond master, and went to Lockport, New York. He cared for stock for Deacon Whiting and went to school. About 1820 he was able to get a job as school teacher at $8 a month. In 1826 he married Salena Newhouse. About the same time he bought a small farm in New York and against the advice of all of his neighbors he planted five acres, all that was cleared, in potatoes. Lack of potato market had always before been in the way of them being a successful crop for New York farmers, but luck, Irishmen and canals seem to have played a part with John Comstock, and a gang of Irish laborers on a New York canal bought his entire crop at 50 cents a bushel, then an enormous price. Again at Liberty Mills the same Irish luck held and later from his distillery he was able to supply most of the whisky that the Irish laborers used along the Wabash & Erie canal. With the proceeds of his potato crop, the earning from a little store, the profits from his farm, and the money earned by well digging with one Thomas Gamble, he was able to gather enough money to come to a land sale at Fort Wayne in 1835, and buy 80 acres of land in Indiana, the beginning of the Comstock farm that at one time reached 1600 acres.
In the spring of 1836 he loaded his family, consisting of wife and six children into a one horse wagon, then with two yoke of oxen hitched to a wagon containing their household goods, and a hired man to drive his six cows, he started for Indiana. After 27 days arriving at the farm he had bought he found an error had been made in the survey, and the house he thought was on his farm was really on a neighboring tract, so he had to camp while a log house was built. But John Comstock was a man who never stopped because of difficulties. In a few days a log pen was built high enough to give shelter and from then until the latter days of his life he was too busy to even stop to hesitate. A physical giant, able to work by the side of the strongest of his men, and do a little more than any of them, with a mind and a will power that could keep pace with his physical strength there was little limit to his activities or his possibilities.
The first winter he dug a mill race and built a saw mill, but the mill burned just as he was ready to start it into operation. Without stopping to hesitate he built another, and soon had it in operation, no doubt sawing the boards that went into the store. A grist mill followed, and was hailed with delight by the scattering settlers who before had had to go a long distance to mill. No one seems to remember the name of flour made, or even whether it had a name, but the “Liberty Bird” flour later manufactured by E.S. Rittenhouse was its direct successor, and was manufactured by water power from the same mill race that ground the flour in those early days. The saw mill and flour mill were near the present mill site. Near to them he started his distillery, and a woolen and carding mill. A little farther north near the present race bridge he operated a tannery, and not far from these was his ashery where lye was made from the wood ashes. All of these were under the personal and direct management of Mr. Comstock, who constantly employed a force of from thirty to sixty men. It was due to this collection of mills that the town was given the latter part of its name, but no one so far has been able to tell the writer where the “Liberty” part came from.
From the beginning all of these enterprises were busy and profitable, but the distillery was particularly prosperous. Liquor from it was hauled in barrels by ox teams to the Irish shovelers on the canal at Lagro. It was also hauled to Warsaw and Mishawaka, there being extensive thirsts at both of those places.
Source: NMHS Newsletter, May 1988
Billing’s Account of the Comstock Impact on the Birth of Liberty Mills
From the beginning all of these enterprises were busy and profitable, but the distillery was particularly prosperous. Liquor from it was hauled in barrels by ox teams to the Irish shovelers on the canal at Lagro. It was also hauled to Warsaw and Mishawaka, there being extensive thirsts at both of those places. Sons of Mr. Comstock, though objecting to the business, drove the ox teams through the almost unbroken forests. It was on one of the trips that William Comstock, then only fourteen, drove into a stream near Warsaw thinking he could get across. One ox went down and drowned. The boy was able to climb from the wagon to the other ox, unyoke it from its dead companion, and on its back rode to shore. When they arrived home, John Comstock declared that the ox had done enough in saving the boy to earn a life of ease, and true to his promise he never allowed the animal to be worked again, but let lit live among green pastures until a natural death came to it.
Along with the distillery and the slops and feeds therefrom naturally came cattle raising, and using the knowledge he had gained from old Deacon Whiting in New York, John Comstock soon was fattening many cattle and hogs. These were marketed mostly in the east, many of them being driven to Buffalo and then shipped to New York. Like most of the animals of that time they were just cattle. He took a bunch of them to New York one time, and while he was selling them at three for a hundred dollars, over in the next pen he heard a Dutch farmer and a Jew fussing about the price to be paid the Dutch man for an old cow. The Dutchman claimed the price was to be $96, while the Jew claimed it was only $95, but in that case the Dutch won, and got the $96. To the ordinary observer the cow was not a bit better than the animals Mr. Comstock was selling at one-third the price, but she was a full blooded Shorthorn, though fit for nothing but beef. That put John Comstock to thinking, and to think was to act with him. On the way home he bought a $1,500 Shorthorn bull in Canada, and soon brought a half dozen full blooded Shorthorn cows from Kentucky and Tennessee. That was the beginning of thoroughbred cattle raising in this part of Indiana, and gradually the stock on the Comstock place had its influence upon that of the neighbors. In the early fair days the Comstock herd was a prize winner where it went, and the cattle business was one that John Comstock clung to so long as life lasted.
It was said that no man willing to work ever came to John Comstock in need and was refused, but he was an enemy of laziness in all its forms, and was a relentless fighter for power and control. He owned most of the land about Liberty Mills; and by that means was pretty well able to control the mercantile interests there. But at one time there were five dry goods stores that got started in the town, men whose names have since been prominent in the mercantile history of the county heading them. But whatever his other virtues or vices may have been, John Comstock was a good advertiser, and promptly in front of his store on a shingle appeared the notice that he would sell goods to farmers on two years time. Farmers needed, or thought they needed, this credit system, thought it is probable a spot cash system would have been just as good then as it is now, and by his own wealth and through eastern credit, John Comstock was able to give them that time. So the days of the opposition stores were numbered. Some moved to North Manchester and some to Wabash.
This spirit together with the spirits from the distillery was the undoing of Liberty Mills. Naturally situated just as well as North Manchester, and having far the best of it in the start, it seemed that she was to become the metropolis of the community. But there was no dominating personality in North Manchester. The many little fellows coming here had a chance to grow into big ones, so while this town was attracting business enterprises, Liberty Mills with its distillery was drawing to it a class of people not calculated to make a good business community. Drinking was common in those days, and many an orgy was pulled off that would have given the gossips talk for a year in dry Indiana today. Folks say that in those early days there were not half a dozen men in Liberty Mills who did not drink to drunkenness. An open keg of whisky with a tin cup attached stood in the mill for all who came. It was sold as freely in the stores as any other merchandise, and the price was not high. Yet notwithstanding the word of the old timer who talks about the liquor of those days being harmless, the kick was there, and the men would get just as drunk on it as they can on the strongest of the white mule compounds. A strong man in every way, entering into the life of those about him in every particular, it is not to be wondered that John Comstock was as weak as others, and at times, drank to excess. But his own opinion of the habit is well expressed in a story told of him. Once when he had been drinking heavily, a friend urged him to go home for the night. But he refused, saying: “What! Me go home! I’m drunk and even my dogs would be ashamed of me,” and he spent the night in his ashery. But he saw the error of this life. He closed the distillery, refusing to sell it, though he had generous offers, and said the place should rot down, which it readily did. And thus again was John Comstock ahead of his generation.
There are lots of other interesting incidents to be told of John Comstock and his part in Chester Township and Liberty Mills; of his fight for a plank road from Lagro; of his building one from Huntington, of his war against the thieves, of his services as probate judge; his work in the legislature; his ambitions to make Liberty Mills a county seat; and last, of the beautiful taste he used in selecting and arranging the family burying ground on a pretty knoll on what was then his own farm. [To be continued.]
Source: NMHS Newsletter, August 1988
The Plank Road and the $500 Bull
Transportation was the one cry of the people in the days when John Comstock was battling to make Liberty Mills the trading center of the Northern Indiana universe. It was anything for a way to get some place and back, or to get produce to market and purchased supplies home. John Comstock felt the need of better roads and realized that to amount to anything, Liberty Mills must have a way for people to get there. In the later thirties or early forties he was one of the men who worked in opening what has been known as the Mail Trace road from Lagro north to Liberty Mills. This got its name from the fact that a track had been blazed through the woods along which mail was carried from Lagro north to Liberty Mills, and probably farther, though there is no definite information. It was only the trace of a road and as the mail was carried over it, the name Mail Trace seemed to apply. But the blazed trail was not sufficient and the work of clearing a roadway and bridging the streams was undertaken. Noah Lindsay, father of Edward Lindsay, was a sort of a foreman for the men who had the contract for this road, Mr. Comstock either having the contract, or being interested in the work. It was a dry season and workmen had difficulty most of the year in getting water to drink, but when the road was finished the dry spell was broken and a celebration was had at Lagro that equaled that of the arrival of the first canal boat at Wabash. The best of Liberty Mills whiskey flowed freely or would have flowed freely had it not been drunk quickly.
But the cleared road with its corduroy bridges did not answer the needs and a plank road was proposed. Just how this happened to be slated for North Manchester instead of Liberty Mills does not appear, but it is known that Comstock was tireless in his efforts to at least get an extension north to Liberty Mills from where this road turned west to go to North Manchester. But for some reason he was not able to get this extension and he at once announced that Lagro was to be marked off the map so far as Liberty Mills was concerned, and Huntington was to be the shipping point from his town. He promoted, built, owned and soon had in operation a plank road from Huntington to Liberty Mills, which like other roads of its kind, was of comparatively short life. J. A. Browne of this city remembers when as he would walk from Huntington in an early day, he would try to keep out of the muddiest places on the road by jumping from one old plank to another. The road entered Liberty Mills at an angle from the southeast, coming there from Claysville. Most of the old line of this road was abandoned at an early date and later more of it has been closed and the traffic diverted to the section lines. It was this change that put the road at the back of the Horace Rockwell house, between the house and the barn, when in an early day the road went past the front of the house, as any self respecting road should do. The line of this old road is still open through a part of Section 36, the buildings on the Frank Bowen and H. T. Tilman farms being on this road.
But John Comstock was not a quitter. He did not quit the cattle business when a few of his high priced animals died, nor did he quit his efforts to get transportation to and from Liberty Mills when the plank road rotted to pieces. He was ready to do his part when the first railroad was suggested and took extensive stock in the company, being elected as vice president of the Eel River Valley Railroad Company. That was in 1852, but that first company seems to have gone a great deal like the interurban companies that in the memory of living man were organized by Mr. Drayer and Mr. Barry. In getting out from under this deal, Mr. Comstock was glad to trade his railroad stock to a New Yorker for a stock of merchandise that his Liberty Mills store could use, at the same time sending the worthless railway stock like chickens, home to roost. Later in 1872 he again became interested in the railway as it was really being built and leads to a bull story.
Mr. Comstock owned a great deal of land through which this road, which was known as the Detroit, Eel River & Illinois, would have to pass. The matter of a right of way through this land was one that gave the promoters some concern, for they knew of Mr. Comstock’s unsatisfactory experiences with the other railroad venture. So it was not the ordinary right of way agent who visited Mr. Comstock. Instead it was D. L. Quirck, really the head man in authority of the company, who came. He did not talk railroad but let Mr. Comstock talk cattle, finally getting so much interested in cattle that he bought a $500 bull from the Comstock herd, and incidentally went away with a deed for the desired right of way and a gravel pit at about $1000 less than he had expected to pay. But $500 was not a high price for Comstock cattle, for older men remember him selling a bull at one of this sales for $3000 that was shipped to Iowa, while he on one occasion at a sale sold a cow for $175 that was so badly crippled she could hardly walk, but was bought by a fancier because of the calves she might raise.
We talk about how busy we are today, but one cannot but wonder, as he looks back into history of those early days and considering the time killing difficulties to be encountered, how men were able to accomplish as much as they did—that is, the ones who got any place. And it seems that then as now it was really only the busy man who had time to do things, either for the public or for himself. Before coming to Indiana, John Comstock was elected as justice of peace in New York, and the title Judge stuck to him as he came west. That with his fitness for the office soon made him probate judge of Wabash county, a judge who had to do with the settlement of all estates. He was elected in 1848 and held until 1852, when the office of probate judge was abolished by an act of the legislature. Before a court day, Mr. Comstock would put in extra time at home getting things in readiness for his absence and would often work until nine or ten at night. Then mounting his favorite saddle horse he would ride to Wabash, a trip through the woods and the darkness that would then often take many hours. It was frequently nearing daylight when mud bespattered he would arrive at a hotel. Wabash then having three, known as the McKibben house, the Center house, and the Indiana house, and after an hour or two of sleep he would appear in the court room. If there was any possibility of finishing the work by a night session, court would be continued until late at night. Then Judge Comstock would mount his horse and be back at home ready to go to work with the strongest of his hands the next day.
In those days everybody was not as smart as they are today. It is said that young men even sometimes were willing to listen to the talk of their elders in hope of learning something, rather than doing the talking as the cigarette smoking youth of today is likely to want to do. Men there are who say that it was a pleasure and almost a liberal education for them to listen to John Comstock and Dr. Lent, the leading physician of his day in Liberty Mills, when they would talk together. The doctor was a highly educated man in a day when education meant more than a college yell and half of a mustache. He was recognized as one of the most skilled physicians of his day in the whole of Northern Indiana. John Comstock, too, was educated in books far beyond the average of his generation, and coupled with that was a knowledge of the world and of men that he had gained by a life full of business and activity. When these men met and talked there is little wonder that the young men, who possibly had never seen the other side of the county, would stop and listen, and listening learn things that have helped them all along their lives. Dr. Cyrus V. N. Lent—can’t you imagine his appearance from his name? Tall, precise, silkhatted, and exact in every detail of his life and appearance. He was an early secretary of the Masonic lodge and the precision of his records are today the wonder and admiration of the secretaries of these later days, if indeed they have ever taken the time to look back and see them.
Source: NMHS Newsletter, November 1988
A Silent Family Circle in Greenwood
When but a boy, L. J. Noftzger, for many years a resident of this city worked for John Comstock, and it was while working for him that he was effectively cured of any possible desire to drink liquor. He did his first work on the Comstock place when he was but eight years of age and worked about there in many capacities for a number of years thereafter. Sometimes his duties were about the distillery. Rotten corn would be brought there to be made into liquor. By the corn crib was a hog pen where the hogs were fed slops and where they wallowed in mud. Men going from the hog pen to the corn crib never thought of cleaning their boots and thus a liberal amount of the filthiest kind of hog wallow would be carried to the rotting corn and from there into the vats of the distillery. And with the hogs and the rotting corn naturally came rats, and sometimes these would fall into the vats and drown. Mr. Noftzger pulled one from a vat one day that was very much dead and which in the fermentating corn had swelled to about four times the size of a real rat and as he pulled it out, it left behind a trailing essence of rotten rat. He always after that wondered how many rats fell into the unprotected vats that were not pulled out and when he thought of that he did not care for whiskey.
But as mentioned earlier in these sketches, Judge Comstock soon became disgusted with the distillery business, though it was a big money maker, even at the low price at which the product was sold. To think a thing was to do it with John Comstock and no sooner had he become convinced of the evils of the traffic than he closed his distillery. He refused good offers for the plant, saying that he did not want in any way to be responsible for that business going any farther. It was a big financial loss to him, but he stood it without a whimper, setting a worthy example for the big distillers of a later day who by popular feeling and national law were forced from a business of which they had at no time had an occasion to be proud. John Comstock was a far bigger man than they. He stopped the business of his own accord, because he did not want to be connected with it; it did not take a national law to force him to see his duty to others, and in this respect as well as many others, John Comstock was sixty years ahead of his generation, for it was in the early fifties that he shut the doors of the old still house and let it rot to pieces.
The distillery was the first of the numerous manufacturing enterprises of John Comstock to be closed. His other manufacturing industries continued until in 1869 when he sold the water right and mills to C. T. Banks & Company, Mr. Banks being the father of W. T. Banks who died a short time ago in Fort Wayne. Age had put its finger upon Mr. Comstock by this time and with increasing years came the desire to devote more time to his farm and also the desire to unload some of the worries of the manufacturing life. His farm and his cattle were his pride. Older residents today tell of Judge Comstock as a familiar figure walking along the road, wearing a linen duster and helping drive his herd of fine show cattle to the county fair at Wabash. On his farm he built for endurance. Only a few years ago his grandson, Charles B. Comstock, removed some of the old fence he had built. Rail fences were common in those days, but it was hard to build rail fences in wet places so the hogs would not root under. So John Comstock built a fence of split white oak pickets, setting them into a ditch in the ground where they were fastened to a retaining sill. Some of these fences were in good condition until very recently.
Contrary to the belief of many people, Judge Comstock was not of Irish descent. Away back in the sixteenth century three brothers, Austrians, and refugees from their native land, came to this country, and he was the descendant of one of them. But John Comstock, like the Lord, loved the Irish. There was always among his many hands on his farm and in his mills, a big sprinkling of Irishmen. John Sullivan, well remembered by many in this locality today, was for years an employee of the Judge. He was a good worker and because of that never wanted for a job on the many pieces of work that the Judge always had on hand. John had the failing of occasionally drinking too much fighting whiskey, and after the saloons at Liberty Mills were all closed he would frequently come to North Manchester for it. Sober, a big good-natured Irishman, drunk he became a fighter to be feared. Many other Irishmen worked for Judge Comstock, and the story is told of one big newly arrived who was working in the wheat field binding wheat. Suddenly he was seen start to running around and around in a circle. At first it was funny, but it soon began to look serious. The other hands could not catch him, and he ran and ran. At last he fell unconscious. To see if his heart still worked his shirt was opened and out jumped a cold, damp, slimy frog. It had started up his pant leg, and, feeling its cold legs, the Irishman had thought it one o the snakes that St. Patrick had driven out of Ireland and ran himself to exhaustion while the frog was making its way up his leg to stop over his heart.
With the retirement of John Comstock from the manufacturing business, Liberty Mills at once lost both its most powerful business man and its worst enemy to progress. Loyal to Liberty Mills at all times, ever ready to spend his money or to fight if need be for the glory of the place, yet John Comstock was short-sighted in thinking that any one man could be big enough to run a town. He owned most of the land about the place that was at all suitable at a site on which to build a town. He platted several additions to the town, one to the east and another to the north when the railroad came, but his prices were high and he sought to control all the enterprises that came to town. It is said of him that when a harness shop came to town, he added harness to the stock in his store, and so on all the way through. By powerful business connections he was able to freeze the little fellows out instead of helping them grow into big fellows to help him to make a bigger town. He owned the land and could dictate its disposition. North Manchester had some of the same in a couple of properties that long stood in the way of an expansion, but which were finally built around, putting the town of today in a different place from where it really should have been. But at Liberty Mills there was no way to build around Judge Comstock’s domain and those who would have done so soon went to other places.
The last few years of this wonderful man were spent quietly on his farm, looking after his stock until the very last. He was touched slightly with paralysis in the spring of 1879 but was better during the summer. On the morning of September 30, 1879, he complained of pains in his shoulder but went about his farm some. At four o’clock that afternoon while sitting in an arm chair in his home at the western edge of Liberty Mills he suddenly became unconscious and died as his grandson was lifting him to a cot. October 3 his remains were laid to rest by the side of those of his wife, who had died about a year before, and those of his son---the only one of his seven children that was born in Indiana and that died when but a child. It was probably the death of this child that was the first occasion of selecting a family burying ground and the highest knoll on the place was selected. No one seems to know who made the plan for the arrangement of graves in his family cemetery, but knowing Judge Comstock and the wonderful scope of his mind, it is easy to think that this arrangement is a plan of his conception. In the center and at the very top of the round hill are the graves of the father, mother and the one son that died in infancy. Surrounding this in the form of a circle are monuments to the memory of the other six children, whether bodies are resting there or not, and back of these in a still larger circle are the graves or stones for their descendants. Standing a few days ago in the center of the inner circle of this unique burying ground the writer removed his hat in honor of the hopes, the efforts, and the accomplishments of one of the men who by their initiative made possible the splendid community conveniences we have today. If you have never visited the Greenwood Cemetery as it is named in the plat, or Comstock Cemetery as it is generally called, it is worth your while to do so. It is between the Eagle farm and Liberty Mills. A visit there, a little meditation over the part this one character had in the early days of the country, and perchance a little thought, too, about what you are doing yourself for your community will do you good.