Source: The Indianapolis News,
Wednesday, August 29, 1956
Al Spiers, "New Uses for Old
Ideas Keep Village Shop Going"
When Wayne Rittenhouse wants his shop to hum, he just
turns on the water. Gurgle, gurgle--and 90,000 volts await
Trouble is, Wayne's shop doesn't hum much now. But he's
an ingenious cuss with a knack for putting old ideas to
clever new uses. And he is determined to round out 100 years
of Rittenhouse manufacturing in this little town (population
302) in northeast Wabash County.
"I've got a dozen years to go," says 52-year-old Wayne,
round, chubby and cheerful, "and a dozen ideas to play with.
I'll make it."
All this began when Grandpa Silas Rittenhouse built a
mill in Liberty Mills in 1868, the year Wayne's father,
Edwin, was born.
Silas, canny Pennsylvania Dutch, cut lumber and made
butter tub headings. He did well until 1885 when business
got slack and Silas got homestead fever.
Silas, his wife, son Freeman and daughter Maude zipped
off to claim free land in Kansas and Nebraska, leaving Edwin
to run the struggling mill.
The four homestead 640 acres and Silas bought 1,500 more,
borrowing periodically from Edwin back home. Then they
rented their new land and returned to Liberty Mills.
Silas, who hadn't kept close track, was surprised when
the books showed he'd borrowed $2,600 all told.
"How could you send me that much?" he asked Edwin.
"Out of mill profits," replied his grinning son. "We made
that and $2,400 last year."
In those days that was big money. Never again did Grandpa
Silas stray from Liberty Mills. Teaming up with his two
sons, he soon branched out.
L.M. Swank, a North Manchester inventor, had devised a
slick, hand-cranked see sower. The Rittenhouses bought
patent rights, named it the Little Giant and manufactured
In 1896, Edwin, on his own, bought the site of a
water-powered mill which had twice burned. He rebuilt the
mill and began making wheelbarrows and grinding flour and
Indirectly that led to family rivalry. Two years before
he died in 1909 Silas gave the original steam-powered mill
and seeder business to son Freeman. Somewhat piqued, Edwin
promptly designed an improved hand seeder and competed with
his brother. This competition lasted until 1924 when Freeman
sold out to Dan Speicher's cyclone Feeder Co. at Urbana and
moved to Akron where he started a shovel factory. (Freeman
died in 1940.)
By then, Edwin had added electricity to his enterprises.
In 1920, he installed a 90-KV hydro-electric plant in the
mill. Others financed and built transmission lines. The mill
powered Edwin's plant and most of Liberty Mills until a
utility bought the transmission system.
Edwin Rittenhouse died in 1939 and that's when Wayne took
over. He had problems. Big firms were making better, cheaper
wheelbarrows. Small flour mills weren't feasible, and seed
sowers were fast disappearing from the mechanized farm
Wayne struggle along. Then war flared.
"At first we had a boom," said Wayne. "then they lowered
one on me. Metal for big, mechanical seeders got scarce, so
our ordres for hand seeders doubled, then tripled.
"That put me in a real bind. There was a ceiling price on
the sower--but none on raw materials I needed to make it. I
lost my shirt..."
But Wayne saved his pants--and his shop and mill. By
war's end, he had patented a slick, tractor-powered seeder.
Then, using the same basic principles, he designed a bigger,
self-powered spreader for spraying sand or cinders on
Both these items are too big go make in Wayne's small
shop, so he farmed them out to a Marion manufacturer.
Now he is redesigning that old Rittenhouse standby, the
Little Giant sower--not for farmers but for millions of new
"Anyone with a big lawn or garden needs something cheap,
handy and efficient to sow seed or fertilizer," Wayne said.
"My gadget will do the job quicker and easier than a
two-wheeled spreader--and won't cost most nearly as much."
Wayne has the machinery and the free power to make that
item in his Liberty Mills shop, so it should soon be humming
If so, he should round out that century of Rittenhouse
manufacturing in tiny Liberty Mills.
MOLE TRAPS AND SEEDERS.
News from the Center, North Manchester News-Journal, April
By William R. Eberly
If the Comstocks wrote the first chapter in the history of
Liberty Mills, then the Rittenhouse family certainly wrote
the second chapter. Few people today remember Liberty
Mills as a prosperous industrial and commercial center, or
the Rittenhouses, especially James F. Rittenhouse, as
leading industrial tycoons. That part of our history
seems to have vanished.
The first Rittenhouse to come to America was Willem
(William) in 1688. He settled in Germantown,
Pennsylvania, in a Mennonite community. He later
became the first Mennonite minister in America. He
developed successful processes for making paper and
established the first paper mill in America in 1690. A
grandson, David Rittenhouse, was the most famous
pre-revolution scientist and inventor in America and became
the first director of the Unites States Mint after 1776.
An early historian of the Rittenhouse family said of David
Rittenhouse in 1893, “He distinguished himself in astronomy,
mathematics, and mechanics, above any man ever produced by
this country. I believe in the hereditary descent of
talents, as well as physical characteristics. I
believe this association of genius and talents of our
ancestors can be made to shine again. We may not see
it in our generation, but it will appear in coming
generations.” Little did he anticipate that this
inventive, mechanical genius would appear in Liberty Mills
in the 20th century!
Silas Beyer Rittenhouse, a native of Pennsylvania, began his
life work as a manufacturer of carriages and wagons.
After his marriage, he began a long and complicated journey
to Indiana. This is reflected in the places where his
children were born. His first son, James Freeman
Rittenhouse, was born in 1860 in Medina, Ohio. His
second son, Edwin Silas Rittenhouse, was born in 1866 in
Ligonier, Indiana. A daughter, Clara, was born in 1870
in Warsaw, Indiana. Sometime between 1873 and 1876 he
moved from Larwill, Indiana, to Liberty Mills.
It would be an understatement to suggest that Silas was very
creative when mechanical things were involved. His
first patent, of many, was granted Feb. 25, 1873. “To
all whom it may concern: Be it known, that I, Silas B.
Rittenhouse, of Larwill, in the county of Whitley and State
of Indiana, have invented a new and useful Improvement in
Silas had from the beginning worked with wood as important
constituents of the various products he was manufacturing.
In the early history of home construction, the 2 x 4 studs
of the walls of a house were covered with lath, narrow
strips of wood with spaces between them to hold plaster
which formed the exposed surface of the walls. His
invention was “a machine for cutting or sawing laths, and at
the same time sawing channels in the edges of the lath, for
the purpose of holding the plaster”.
When Silas and his family moved to Liberty Mills, he bought
the mill and the water power rights from Comstock.
There was not only a grain mill there, but also a saw mill.
True to form, Silas’s next invention (patented Nov. 07,
1876) was an “Improvement in dogs for saw-mill carriages.”
The “dog” is the device that secures the log to the carriage
which moves the log into the rotating saw blade (which is
Related to the saw mill operation was a factory which made
various items using a lot of wood. For one, they made
butter-tubs, used to ship butter long distances. They
continued to make various wagon parts. They also began
manufacturing a hand-seeder, a device carried on one’s
shoulder and operated by turning a crank which scattered
seed over a wide area. Actually, Sam Speicher of
Urbana had patented a seeder in 1885 and was producing his
version in a small factory in North Manchester.
Speicher later moved his factory to Urbana. Silas
Rittenhouse patented his version of the hand seeder on July
24, 1888. The Rittenhouse seeder was manufactured many
years. Silas even registered his invention in Canada.
Silas and his son, J. F. Rittenhouse, were co-inventors of a
new model of the seeder patented July 6, 1909. Silas
had died earlier in 1909. J. F. Rittenhouse made still
some more improvements to the seeder which were patented
Apr. 8, 1913. In still another twist to the seeder
business, Wayne M. Rittenhouse in March 24, 1953 received a
patent for a power driven seeder for tractors.
Back again to 1897, Silas and son James F. developed and
patented a “lifting jack” for raising vehicles on the axle
for maintenance and repair to wheels. It would fold up
in a small bundle for ease in transportation. All of
these inventions were produced for sale in their factories.
About this time, S. B. and J.F. Rittenhouse (father and son)
began experimenting with a device to trap and kill moles in
your front yard. They were attracted to the impalement
type of killer-trap and patented two versions with a simple
coil spring (Aug. 14, 1900 and Feb. 19, 1901). They
finally decided on a strong, expansion type spring which
they patented Dec. 17, 1901. These were manufactured
in their Liberty Mills factory and distributed widely
through various distributers in nearby states. It was
also sold through mail order houses. This Rittenhouse
type mole trap is still sold today, marketed by the Victor
Trap Company. I saw one just the other day at Ace’s
Hardware store in Warsaw.
Silas left Liberty Mills briefly and placed his enterprises
in the hands of his sons. Edwin ran the grist mill,
saw mill, seeder factory, and various other operations in
the south of Liberty Mills. He switched to electric
power, using a large dynamo installed in the mill race.
He produced more power than he needed, so he ran some lines
up to Main Street in Liberty Mills to provide street
In the meantime, a new factory was built at the north end of
town, between the railroad and the river. This factory
produced the mole traps, seeders, adjustable wrenches, and
wooden handled shovels and forks. He needed
electricity at his northern factory, so two giant windmills,
each with two sets of fans facing in opposite directions,
and each windmill set at right angles to the other.
The fan blades were twenty-five feet in diameter.
(Actually, it is not clear yet whether these windmills
produced electricity or simply mechanical power.) It
is said that “many people rode the passenger train through
town just to see these wind mills.)
In 1923, a committee of businessmen from Akron, Indiana, was
looking for businesses to move to Akron to provide
employment for Akron citizens. They came to talk with
J. F. Rittenhouse about moving his factory to Akron.
By this time, J. F. had stopped manufacturing mole traps and
hand seed sowers and was making shovels. With proper
inducements, the J. F. Rittenhouse Manufacturing Company
relocated to Akron. While still at Liberty Mills, the
company employed from 40 to 50 men and “already has on hand
orders for $30,000 worth of its product.” The new
building in Akron was built by M. V. Grim, a North
As business prospered, the Rittenhouse firm expanded its
work force and in 1929 added another large room to its
building. In 1931, the company merged with two other
manufacturing firms to form the C.K.R. Manufacturing
Company, with its general offices in Cleveland, Ohio.
In 1936, the Akron plant shipped more than 305,000 pounds of
freight (shovels and other specialized hardware items). In
1938, it was announced that the name had changed to the
American Fork and Hoe Company. At the time of the
death of J. F. Rittenhouse in 1940, the Akron plant employed
around 300 men.
And so, the era of Liberty Mills as an industrial
center came to an end. True, some of the Rittenhouse
manufacturing activities continued for awhile, especially
the production of knives for hammer mills, directed by
Arthur Coblentz. It is mostly quiet now. The
little town that once had several factories, a flour mill,
butchering establishment, elevator, train depot, livestock
auction barn, a hotel, two doctor’s offices, post office,
general store, drug store, groceries and other retail
establishments, and a large two story brick schoolhouse –
exists only in the memory of a few of the older residents.