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Liberty Mills

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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 orders!

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 thousands.

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 feed.

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 scene.

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 ice-slick pavements.

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 suburbanites.

"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 again.

If so, he should round out that century of Rittenhouse manufacturing in tiny Liberty Mills.


News from the Center, North Manchester News-Journal, April 16, 2008
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 Lath-Machines.” 
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 fixed). 
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 lighting there.
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 Manchester contractor. 
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.