Source: NMHS Newsletter, August 1988

The Plank Road and the $500 Bull

Transportation was the one cry of the people in the days when John Comstock was battling to make Liberty Mills the trading center of the Northern Indiana universe.  It was anything for a way to get some place and back, or to get produce to market and purchased supplies home.  John Comstock felt the need of better roads and realized that to amount to anything, Liberty Mills must have a way for people to get there.  In the later thirties or early forties he was one of the men who worked in opening what has been known as the Mail Trace road from Lagro north to Liberty Mills.  This got its name from the fact that a track had been blazed through the woods along which mail was carried from Lagro north to Liberty Mills, and probably farther, though there is no definite information.  It was only the trace of a road and as the mail was carried over it, the name Mail Trace seemed to apply.  But the blazed trail was not sufficient and the work of clearing a roadway and bridging the streams was undertaken.  Noah Lindsay, father of Edward Lindsay, was a sort of a foreman for the men who had the contract for this road, Mr. Comstock either having the contract, or being interested in the work.  It was a dry season and workmen had difficulty most of the year in getting water to drink, but when the road was finished the dry spell was broken and a celebration was had at Lagro that equaled that of the arrival of the first canal boat at Wabash.  The best of Liberty Mills whiskey flowed freely or would have flowed freely had it not been drunk quickly.

But the cleared road with its corduroy bridges did not answer the needs and a plank road was proposed.  Just how this happened to be slated for North Manchester instead of Liberty Mills does not appear, but it is known that Comstock was tireless in his efforts to at least get an extension north to Liberty Mills from where this road turned west to go to North Manchester.  But for some reason he was not able to get this extension and he at once announced that Lagro was to be marked off the map so far as Liberty Mills was concerned, and Huntington was to be the shipping point from his town.  He promoted, built, owned and soon had in operation a plank road from Huntington to Liberty Mills, which like other roads of its kind, was of comparatively short life.  J. A. Browne of this city remembers when as he would walk from Huntington in an early day, he would try to keep out of the muddiest places on the road by jumping from one old plank to another.  The road entered Liberty Mills at an angle from the southeast, coming there from Claysville.  Most of the old line of this road was abandoned at an early date and later more of it has been closed and the traffic diverted to the section lines.  It was this change that put the road at the back of the Horace Rockwell house, between the house and the barn, when in an early day the road went past the front of the house, as any self respecting road should do.  The line of this old road is still open through a part of Section 36, the buildings on the Frank Bowen and H. T. Tilman farms being on this road.

But John Comstock was not a quitter.  He did not quit the cattle business when a few of his high priced animals died, nor did he quit his efforts to get transportation to and from Liberty Mills when the plank road rotted to pieces.  He was ready to do his part when the first railroad was suggested and took extensive stock in the company, being elected as vice president of the Eel River Valley Railroad Company.  That was in 1852, but that first company seems to have gone a great deal like the interurban companies that in the memory of living man were organized by Mr. Drayer and Mr. Barry.  In getting out from under this deal, Mr. Comstock was glad to trade his railroad stock to a New Yorker for a stock of merchandise that his Liberty Mills store could use, at the same time sending the worthless railway stock like chickens, home to roost.  Later in 1872 he again became interested in the railway as it was really being built and leads to a bull story.

Mr. Comstock owned a great deal of land through which this road, which was known as the Detroit, Eel River & Illinois, would have to pass.  The matter of a right of way through this land was one that gave the promoters some concern, for they knew of Mr. Comstock’s unsatisfactory experiences with the other railroad venture.  So it was not the ordinary right of way agent who visited Mr. Comstock.  Instead it was D. L. Quirck, really the head man in authority of the company, who came.  He did not talk railroad but let Mr. Comstock talk cattle, finally getting so much interested in cattle that he bought a $500 bull from the Comstock herd, and incidentally went away with a deed for the desired right of way and a gravel pit at about $1000 less than he had expected to pay.  But $500 was not a high price for Comstock cattle, for older men remember him selling a bull at one of this sales for $3000 that was shipped to Iowa, while he on one occasion at a sale sold a cow for $175 that was so badly crippled she could hardly walk, but was bought by a fancier because of the calves she might raise.

We talk about how busy we are today, but one cannot but wonder, as he looks back into history of those early days and considering the time killing difficulties to be encountered, how men were able to accomplish as much as they did—that is, the ones who got any place.  And it seems that then as now it was really only the busy man who had time to do things, either for the public or for himself.  Before coming to Indiana, John Comstock was elected as justice of peace in New York, and the title Judge stuck to him as he came west.  That with his fitness for the office soon made him probate judge of Wabash county, a judge who had to do with the settlement of all estates.  He was elected in 1848 and held until 1852, when the office of probate judge was abolished by an act of the legislature.  Before a court day, Mr. Comstock would put in extra time at home getting things in readiness for his absence and would often work until nine or ten at night.  Then mounting his favorite saddle horse he would ride to Wabash, a trip through the woods and the darkness that would then often take many hours.  It was frequently nearing daylight when mud bespattered he would arrive at a hotel.  Wabash then having three, known as the McKibben house, the Center house, and the Indiana house, and after an hour or two of sleep he would appear in the court room.  If there was any possibility of finishing the work by a night session, court would be continued until late at night.  Then Judge Comstock would mount his horse and be back at home ready to go to work with the strongest of his hands the next day.

In those days everybody was not as smart as they are today.  It is said that young men even sometimes were willing to listen to the talk of their elders in hope of learning something, rather than doing the talking as the cigarette smoking youth of today is likely to want to do.  Men there are who say that it was a pleasure and almost a liberal education for them to listen to John Comstock and Dr. Lent, the leading physician of his day in Liberty Mills, when they would talk together.  The doctor was a highly educated man in a day when education meant more than a college yell and half of a mustache.  He was recognized as one of the most skilled physicians of his day in the whole of Northern Indiana.  John Comstock, too, was educated in books far beyond the average of his generation, and coupled with that was a knowledge of the world and of men that he had gained by a life full of business and activity.  When these men met and talked there is little wonder that the young men, who possibly had never seen the other side of the county, would stop and listen, and listening learn things that have helped them all along their lives.  Dr. Cyrus V. N. Lent—can’t you imagine his appearance from his name?  Tall, precise, silkhatted, and exact in every detail of his life and appearance.  He was an early secretary of the Masonic lodge and the precision of his records are today the wonder and admiration of the secretaries of these later days, if indeed they have ever taken the time to look back and see them.