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Source: NMHS Newsletter May 2002
Liberty Mills celebrated its
centennial on Sunday, September 5, 1937 celebrating the
l00th anniversary of the platting of the town by John
Comstock. Several Native Americans who were descendants
of Indian chiefs such as Little Turtle, Francis Godfrey
and Little Charley attended and told stories of the
customs of their fathers. Comstock was not the original
owner of the land on which Liberty Mills stood even
after the whites had wrested it from the original
owners. James Abbott entered the land at the land office
in Fort Wayne in 1833 and moved to it in 1834, His home
was a bit north of the town that was later plotted
Mr. Abbott sold ten acres along Eel
River to a Mr. McBride with the condition that McBride
would build a grist mill. That was the most urgent need
of any settlers and the nearest mill was at Waterford on
the Elkhart river close to Goshen. It was a long arduous
journey through the swamps and woods and many trees had
to be cut to make a passage through But McBride did not
build the mill and in the meantime John Comstock have
moved into the vicinity. Comstock was a man of
comparative means and seemed to have ambition. A study
of the river revealed it had excellent possibilities for
water power. So Comstock bought out McBride and built a
dam and established a mill near where the Rittenhouse
mill was at a later time. In a short time he established
a saw mill, and later a carding mill, a tannery and a
distillery. It is likely that he had a small store
before he platted the town in 1837.
The original plat had 98 lots three
blocks wide east and west and four blocks long north and
south. The north and south streets were First, Second,
Third and Fourth and the east and west streets were
Main, which extends through the business section, North,
Wall and Wabash. The east end of Wall street connected
with the angling road toward Collamer. Later 37 lots
were platted north of Wall street to near the right of
way of the railroad and extending a tier of lots east of
Fourth and north of the Collamer road. Part of those
lots later became part of the school yard.
The early bridge across the river was
to the northwest where the later iron bridge existed.
However business establishments began to
increase into the north part of town
nearer the bridge and business was being taken from the
downtown section, largely controlled by Mr. Comstock.
Soon he became interested in converting what had been a
ford and a ferry during high water, into another bridge.
First a crude bridge was built. Then it was replaced by
a covered bridge in the early seventies. This covered
bridge was replaced by a river bridge and a race bridge
- both build at the same time. The highway to the west
which angled through Mr. Comstock's farm and past the
family cemetery he created also may have influenced the
location of the bridge.
John Comstock in his day was easily
the biggest and most influential business man and farmer
in Northern Wabash county. He was a member of the State
Legislature and a probate judge and was progressive in
many ways and as stubborn as an ox in others. When the
canal was built through Lagro he maintained a warehouse
at Lagro and attracted business men to Liberty Mills
faster than to North Manchester. However, he could not
stand competition, and because of his buying power,
could undersell those who dared compete with him. Some
of the early business men came to North Manchester. In
fact, it was not uncommon in telling the history of an
early North Manchester business man to mention that he
first located in Liberty Mills.
Mr. Comstock was active in getting a
plank road built from Lagro to the north part of the
county, no doubt thinking it would be routed to Liberty
Mills. When he found it was to be routed to North
Manchester, he sold his warehouse in Lagro and wiped the
town off his business map. He then headed a company that
built a plank road from Liberty Mills to Huntington and
the route of this road still exists in places today.
Robert Carson, who had married Sarah Comstock, a
daughter, kept the toll gate at the east edge of Liberty
Mills. The Comstock residence, called the toll house,
later became the Wayne Rittenhouse residence.
An early map of Liberty Mills, drawn
shortly after the Detroit and Eel River railroad was
built, shows an elevator, depot, switch tracks, saw
mill, three stores and two shops, all located on Second
street in the north part of town. At the corner of
Second and North street was an
L-shaped hotel and there were two
doctor's offices, Dr. Banks and Dr. Lent Lower. Earlier
Dr. Peter Bender had practiced there, but later moved to
Laketon. Dr. Lower moved to North Manchester and built
what was later the office building of Dr. Worth M.
Walrod, and the residence property to the north on the
northeast corner of Second and Market.
On Main street was the Post office in
the west part of town, the R. Carson general store, a
drug store, groceries and other retail establishments. A
church had been built and also the school on the site of
the later building. Some distance to the south was the
grist mill and along the race and between the race and
the river were the other businesses belonging to Mr.
In later years there were two
factories operated by brothers. Ed Rittenhouse operated
the grist mill and also manufactured seed sowers. He
powered the entire business by water power until in
later years when he generated electricity with water,
not only for his mill but also the light for the town.
In the north part of the town near the railroad was a
factory operated by Freeman Rittenhouse who manufactured
shovels and other hardware. Later he moved this factory
to Akron and it came into other ownership.
James Abbott from whom the Abbott
families in this locality traced their ancestry, was
born in South Carolina, the son of a Revolutionary
soldier. Abbott was a member of General Wayne's army
when the Indian Confederacy was broken in the battle of
Fallen Timbers in Northern Ohio and after the treaty of
1826 which opened Indiana land to settlement north of
the Wabash river, he decided to try his fortune in the
land he helped win from the Indians.
The first school was taught in a log
cabin by Miss Harriet Tullis and in 1841 a building was
constructed that lasted until 1872. In that year a large
two story building was built - a combination school and
town hall. Part of the cost was paid by Liberty Mills
people directly for the privilege of having a hall. This
building endured until 1903 when it was dismantled and
the building still standing was built on the foundations
of the old.
Why did Liberty Mills with its
early advantages over North Manchester, not become the
largest town in the north part of Wabash
county? The answer seems to be
largely that it was a one man town in the period when
foundations were being made for later growth. Men who
could have helped shape the town to a larger
development, gave up in disgust and moved out. Mr.
Comstock or his daughter, Mrs. Carson, owned or
controlled most of the land about the town, and thus
could control its expansion. By the time Mr. Comstock's
influence had declined, North Manchester had the edge in
various industries with free enterprise and competition
prevailing, with an alert business citizenry eager to
attract new industries and promote the expansion of the
The above was written at the time of
the centennial in 1937 by an anonymous writer. It
presents some material not found in detail in previous
writings but we have no clue so far of its authorship.
Please supply any further details you know or respond to
the editor regarding the perspective on the growth of
the Liberty Mills.