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Liberty Mills

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Source: NMHS Newsletter May 2002

Liberty Mills Centennial

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

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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. Comstock.

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

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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 town.


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.