Source: NMHS Newsletter, May 1990

Northern Wabash County Antiques

By L. Z. Bunker, M.D., Retired


Exploring the antiques of northern Wabash County, we find three varieties:  [1] articles, which the pioneers brought with them; [2] articles which were made after they arrived; and [3] articles purchased after they were established.


Most settlers in this area came from around the Dayton, Ohio, area; their families had come after the Treaty of Greenville in 1796 from eastern Ohio, New Hampshire and Connecticut.  These migrants had made the long haul over the mountains, and what they brought were smaller articles:  Set Thomas clocks, Birge and Beck clocks, small boxes, Nantucket baskets, sandwich glass, Bennington pitchers, and wood and gilt framed mirrors.  An occasional Hitchcock chair may be found.  Infrequently one finds a chest, sometimes carved or with decoration in water paint.  There are also samplers and very old patterns of bedding.  A small amount of dark blue tableware by Clews and Enoch Wood is found, along with “rattail” silver spoons and brass candlesticks.


The Pennsylvania Dutch moving westward and eventually settling in this area, brought many more goods with them, due to the short distance and their huge Conestoga wagons, pulled by ox teams or several horses.  Much of their gear had been accumulated in the years after the American Revolution:  great chests, storage pieces, bureaus, spinning wheels and looms, huge cupboards, “cannon ball” beds, along with tools for many crafts.


Carpenter, “joiners” who were cabinetmakers, gunsmiths, and weavers were among this migration.


The migration to Wabash County began in the 1820’s.  Wabash, Laketon, New Madison (now Servia), North Manchester were settled in the mid and late 1830’s.  Lagro was an early settlement due to the building of the Wabash-Erie Canal.


The German Brethren came into northern Wabash County in 1850 and following, in a second migration from middle Ohio.  Also using Conestoga wagons, they brought much of the household gear that had kept antique shops active to the present day.  Pennsylvania Dutch furniture, cupboards, and so forth, are the highest priced articles on the local market.


Once settled the pioneers began making articles needed in their daily lives.  Plain cupboards, benches, and chests were made.  Wood and flax grown locally was spun into cloth and bedding.  Hides were tanned and made into harness and shoes. 


The Jenks family, living in the Salem area, made chairs, a large hickory split variety with woven plait seats.  These were painted black, with red, white and green trim, a homegrown Hitchcock!  The grandfather also made small rocking chairs for his numerous grandchildren.  A blind daughter of this family and her blind husband made brooms, using broom cane grown on the family farm.


There did not seem to be any baskets made in this area, but people had various sized boxes with wooden handles.


After the removal of the Indians from this area, some would wander back in the summers to escape the Oklahoma heat.  They camped in brush huts on the flats of the river, below Elm Street in North Manchester.  They peddled willow baskets and whittled spoons and butter paddles.


The pioneers worked together and traded their skills.  One of the most important workmen was the blacksmith who made locks and keys, and pump fittings for wooden pumps.  Hiram Whitlow was an early blacksmith, followed by the Thrush family who made wagon tires and later wagons and buggies.


Itinerant peddlers came through the early settlement, selling tin ware, cast iron pots and skillets, etc., some with long legs to use in fireplaces.  Early weavers turned out woven coverlets, small rugs and rag carpets.  Everyone worked from dawn to dark.  The amount of handmade articles that have come down to us is truly amazing.


The pioneer outpost soon became a thriving town.  We had a postmaster three years after the town was settled, and soon there were gunsmiths, an iron pump factory, and a pottery, all along North Manchester’s Main Street.  The pottery turned out some Bennington-type pieces but never was able to make a good blaze and soon made only red ware.


With the opening of the canal at Lagro in 1837, the area had an outlet for its grain, hides and furs, and became increasingly prosperous.  Little has been written about the impact of transportation on the pioneer community.  The canal operated to transport pioneers but chiefly as a freight line, bringing in manufactured goods from the east coast, tools, medicines, thread and calico materials, dishes, and other household necessities to make life more bearable.  There was a railroad in southern Wabash County in 1857, but none in the northern part of the county till 1871.


Tighlman I Siling and his brother, Milton, were furniture makers who came here to build a furniture factory in 1854.  They made bureaus, tables, an occasional sofa, and coffins.  Siling closed out his business to enlist in the Union Army in 1861, and the Argerbright family succeeded him.  None of this early furniture is marked.


The citizens were hard-working people of moderate taste, so we do not see the fine rosewood and mahogany chairs and tables of a more pretentious society.


By 1876, the nation’s centennial year, the wounds of the civil War were healed, and the country enjoyed the results of it labors, agricultural machinery increased grain production, and there were expendable funds for better living.  Cook stoves, coal oil lamps, sewing machines, lace curtains, abundant cloth, and even manufactured clothing appear, as well as the lawn mower.


Much of what is currently in antique shops comes from this era:  pie safes, cottage organs, and “dressers” with handkerchief boxes.  Fancy bric-a-brac abounded.


There was much furniture being made in the Goshen area and New Paris, also in the Grand Rapids area in Michigan.  Every town had a furniture store.  The upholstered settee and couches appeared along with fancy portieres and curtains.  The housewife spent her butter and egg money on ironstone Willow Ware, the “tea leaf” and “flow blue” patterns, the sprigged Adams pottery and the bright red, green and blue dished known as “gaudy Dutch.”


Fringed red and white table cloths and napkins set off the tableware.  Heavy clear glass from Ohio and Pennsylvania makers was common.  The clear pattern glass dates from this time also.


One hundred years ago, in 1890, the most elegant gift a housewife could receive was a set of Haviland china.  One branch of the Haviland Company operated in New York, the other in Limoges, France.  Great quantities of the china were sold.  To see the amount remaining of this fragile product, one can imagine the care it received:  it was really “company” dishes.


Greentown glass, now much sought after, was given away as containers for mustard, etc., and Majolica, the garish pottery, was a baking powder premium.  Red Bohemian and cranberry glass, glass paperweights, “bride’s baskets,” and novelties were made by Austrian immigrant glass workers.  Cut glass and finely blown stemware was common.


Americans were living in affluence, and the simple life of the pioneer had become a legend.  I will conclude this incomplete resume at 1900.  It is with some chagrin that I remember the household gear of my childhood of the early 1900’s, now being sold as antiques!