History of Chester Township, Wabash County,
From: History of Wabash County, Indiana
Compiles under the Editorial Supervison of
Clarkson W. Weesner
The Lewis Publishing Company
Chicago and New York 1914
It was several years after the transfer of the former Indian lands in the Eel River Valley to the Government, and their survey into sections, that settlers commenced to cast their eyes into what is now Chester Township in their search for homes. It is true that capitalists and speculators entered large tracts at the Government price of $1.25 per acre, and some times held them unimproved for years, to the great inconvenience and scorn of those who desired to become residents and real developers of the country.
THE EEL RIVER VALLEY
The land in the vicinity of Eel River is undulating, gradually developing into gently sloping hillocks to the northward. Between the rolling ground on either side of the river stretches a broad band of rich alluvial soil, specially adapted to corn raising. Toward the central portion of the township and extending well into the southern part is an area of gently rolling land diversified by patches of low prairie, while still further south the level lowlands are more pronounced. In fact, a large tract in that section of the township was returned by the early surveyors as "swamp land" and for many years was avoided by home seekers as undesirable. That tract was designated by pioneers as the Bear Swamp, and was afterward transformed into a beautiful and fertile region mostly by settlers of German blood and habits.
STUMBLING BLOCKS FOR THE TOWNSHIP
But the fact that the obviously desirable lands of the Eel River region were in the earlier years largely tied
up by speculators and that it was a long time before this other fertile block of lands in Chester Township came
to be recognized as valuable, proved real stumbling blocks in the progress of this part of the county.
A RACE FOR A HOMESTEAD
Sometimes eligible tracts remained without an owner, parties often fearing to purchase land they had not seen, and in this way some pieces escaped attention. An incident may be related to show how these were sometimes entered. James Ridgely passing through the southeast part of the township discovered that part of section 30, town 29, range 8, was good land and had never been entered. While looking at the tract, another party put in an appearance with designs upon it also, and it then became a question as to which of them could get to the land office at Fort Wayne first. The stranger was afoot, but setting his pocket compass took a bee line for his destination. Mr. Ridgely, being mounted, struck down to the towpath of the canal, a more circuitous route, but was fortunate enough to reach the land office at Fort Wayne about half an hour in advance of his competitor. He afterward returned to Montgomery County, Ohio, whence he set out for his near home in the forests of Chester Township, where he arrived in September, 1841, bringing with him about a year's supply of provisions. He found the little hut he had previously built used as a sort of stable for the Indians' ponies. During the winter following he cleared up a patch of ground from which he raised a small crop of corn. The tops of the fallen trees served as "browse" for the cattle and horses, and were about all they had to live on until grass came in the spring. Mr. Ridgely was a typical settler, but he was by no means the first to arrive in Chester Township, as the progress of this story will show.
THE CREEKS AND THEIR NAMES
The township is so thoroughly watered that it has always been considered an ideal country for the raising of horses. Both Indians and white renegades made the region quite notorious in both the good and bad sense of the word, and one of its streams (Pony Creek) perpetuates the fact. It is a matter of record that with the coming of the first incursion of settlers in and near Bear Swamp both they and the Miamis managed to run these pony thieves out of the country, their headquarters being in the southwestern portion of the township between Bear Grass and Pony creeks. What Pony, or Ogan's Creek does for the southern portions of the township, Simonton Creek accomplishes for the northern - waters the soil well and makes of the adjacent lands, green and luxuriant pastures.
The pioneer settlers within the limits of the present township located very near what is now North Manchester in the valley of the Eel River. In December, 1833, a man by the name of Brewer built himself a shack near the site of the present town, and remained in that locality during the winter. It is said that in the following spring he moved to the more lively town of Wabash, where he kept a boarding house for workmen employed on the Wabash & Erie Canal. As he died shortly afterward, little is known of him.
FIRST PERMANENT RESIDENT
But in March, 1834, there came a man of another type to the North Manchester locality - Col. Richard Helvy, who located on the bank of Eel River, about a mile northeast of the present town. He was a native of Virginia, but moved to Indianapolis at an early day, and about 1831 opened a farm at La Gro, Wabash County. The colonel was thus engaged until he ventured into the solitudes of the Eel River Valley at the time and the place mentioned. There he cleared a farm of more than a hundred acres - the first in the township - from which he raised the pioneer crop of corn in these parts.
JAMES ABBOTT JOINS COLONEL HELVY
In September, 1834, Colonel Helvy was joined by James Abbott, who located on the same stream a short distance
above the present site of Liberty Mills. But although they were several miles apart, they were neighbors in those
days. Mr. Abbott was a native of South Carolina, but at the age of eight years was bound out to a slaveholder in
North Carolina with whom he remained until he was eighteen years of age. He then ran away from his master and escaped
into Tennessee, where he was married in 1799 to Catharine Tillman. In 1805 he moved to Preble County, Ohio, where
he purchased and improved a farm and reared ten children. Mr. Abbott served under General Wayne in the War of 1812
and his father was a soldier of the Revolutionary war. From his family, including his own children and grandchildren,
no less than thirty soldiers were furnished to the Union army during the progress of the Civil war; which altogether
speaks well for the patriotic blood of the Abbott family.
ELDER GEORGE ABBOTT
George Abbott, one of the sous of James, came to Wabash County with his parents when he was a youth of seventeen,
and preached to a Christian congregation at Liberty Mills for thirty or forty years. Like his father he was a deacon
in the church, and is said to have been instrumental in adding between two thousand and three thousand members
to the Disciples of Christ during the many years of his service. In August, 1839, he married Miss Nancy Barrett,
then the only white girl in Chester Township. She was a Kentucky girl, her father, Jesse, dying when she was quite
young and the widow marrying Col. Richard Helvy.
Before the close of 1834, the Abbotts and the Helvys were joined by John and Peter Ogan. The former located on the south side of Eel River, not far from the present Town of North Manchester and erected a rude corn mill on the bank of the creek which still bears his name. Peter Ogan settled within the present corporate limits of North Manchester. He erected a flouring and sawmill on the bank of Eel River and was engaged in various other enterprises during the period of his residence in the community. As stated, the stream along whose banks the Ogans established their mills still bears the family name for several miles above North Manchester; below it is called Pony Creek.
Early in 1835, John Simonton pushed his way up Eel River in a boat that contained himself, his family and household goods, disembarked and settled on a large farm on the south shore not far from the mouth of the creek which bears his name. The locality is about midway between the sites of North Manchester and Liberty Mills, as we now know them. Mr. Simonton was long and favorably identified with the township.
Henry Strickler came in February, 1836, and located on the south bank of the Eel River about a mile below North Manchester, where he cleared and improved a large farm, residing thereon until the time of his death. He was of sturdy Pennsylvania Dutch stock and his father was a Methodist preacher and a weaver. Upon coining to Wabash County Henry Strickler entered 320 acres of land at the location mentioned and hired a man from La Gro to assist him in the building of a cabin. In 1836 he moved upon his purchase and commenced to clear away the forest growths. This tract, a short distance west of North Manchester, became a comfortable and attractive homestead, whereon was reared a large family of sons and daughters. Two of the former were in the Union army. Both parents died on the old homestead, steadfast members of the Methodist Church. Mr. Strickler being given the main credit for the erection of the First M. E. Church of North Manchester.
In September, 1836, Joseph Harter came from Montgomery County, Ohio, and, with his family, located within the present corporate limits of North Manchester. The family consisted of nine children, and several of the sons, as well as the father, were continuously identified with the milling and business interests of that place.
In the year of the arrival of the Harters, Peter Ogan had a portion of his land platted as the Town of North
Manchester. As he put up the price of the lots to $10 apiece, the sales were at first rather slow. Joseph Harter
and his oldest son, Eli, at once commenced to take an active part in the development of the new town. The father
purchased at different times twenty eight quarter sections of land lying along the Eel River at and near North
Manchester. In 1838 he built a sawmill and in 1839 a gristmill, the latter being upon the site of the present Eisenberger
Mills. The father was a prominent citizen and a promoter of milling and business interests until his death in 1861.
JOSEPH B. HARTER
Mr. Harter was born near Hagerstown, Maryland, May 3, 1827, the son of Joseph and Elizabeth (Brower) Harter. His mother was a Virginian and it was from the Old Dominion that the Harter family migrated to Montgomery County, Ohio, in 1804. It has thus been resident in "the territory northwest of the Ohio" for 110 years. Joseph B. was but nine years of age when his parents took the long overland trip from Ohio to Indiana, but still remembers the exciting journey through forests and over streams until they reached the city of Indianapolis and later, Logansport. They met Indians a plenty, but no bears, and long after the family had settled at North Manchester the Pottawatomies and the Miamis were frequent visitors to the Harter mills and houses. Three quarters of a century have passed before the eyes and mind of Mr. Harter, and during that long period he has seen North Manchester and Wabash County grown from nothing to a fine city and county; a New World has risen both before him and around him, and he still takes an interest in it all. He is one of the advisory editors of this work, and, in view of his record, it is well that he should be numbered on the staff.
SOME FIRST HAPPENINGS
In April, 1835, a little over a year after their arrival, Colonel Helvy and his wife were blessed with their
daughter, Sarah, the first native of Chester Township. In due time she married DeWitt West, of North Manchester,
and both husband and wife resided there for many years.
LIBERTY MILLS FOUNDED
At the same time that North Manchester was being born through the efforts of Messrs. Ogan, Harter and others, the Town of Liberty Mills. two miles further up the river, was being created. The story has already reached the point where James Abbott had sold the land upon which it was afterward platted to Alex McBride upon the condition that he erect a gristmill upon the property. Mr. McBride failed to "make good," but in June, 1836, there came a man for whom the township and the county had been waiting, John Comstock, with his brave wife and six children. He assumed all the McBride obligations, building not only a gristmill, but a sawmill, a woolenmill, a distillery and a high grade flourmill. In 1837 Mr. Comstock laid out the Town of Liberty Mills and, as we have fully described elsewhere, became in many ways the broadest, strongest and most helpful citizen in Wabash County. He put Liberty Mills fairly on the map and wrote himself into a large chapter of the county's history.
FIRST SETTLERS IN THE BEAR SWAMP REGION
Among the early settlers locating in the Bear Swamp and vicinity prior to 1836 were Caleb Antrim and George
Dillon. In October, 1837, came Jesse Jenks; also Fleming and James Ayers and their widowed mother; Thomas Gilmore,
at the same time, settled on section 18. Soon thereafter came Michael Burke, who located about one mile east of
the Jenks settlement, and in 1838 Payton Daniels located about two miles south of that locality.
CHESTER TOWNSHIP CREATED
The year 1836 seems to have been an important one for Chester Township. In fact, it was not created until that year, eight miles square being set off from the north of La Gro Township under the name of Chester, in May, 1836; it was not until some years afterward that it attained its present area and form. As we have seen, North Manchester was also platted in 1836, and the lands which were platted as Liberty Mills came into the hands of John Comstock the same year. From that time on for several years North Manchester and Liberty Mills were industrial competitors.
LATER SETTLEMENT OF THE "BEAR SWAMP"
The Bear Swamp region of the south commenced to settle quite rapidly in the '50s. Previously, such settlers
had located as Jonathan Hamilton and Stephen Jenks in 1840, and Alfred and Enos Hornady in 1841. The Hornadys took
up lands on sections 19 and 25. Samuel Ridgely came about two years later, and Cornelius Wilson about 1849. Then
came a greater immigration to the region.
PIONEER VS. WILDERNESS
"Thus, within a period of little more than twenty years, the settlement which began along the banks of
Eel River had become diffused over sixty six square miles of territory, and in every quarter of the township was
heard the ring of the pioneer's ax mingled with the sounds of the giant trees as they fell to give place to the
cleared fields that everywhere blossomed in the heart of the wilderness. Game of all descriptions still ran wild
in the forests, and venison was the most popular meat on the daily bill of fare. So plentiful were the deer at
that time that the problem of meat was not a serious one to a good marksman.
THE "MAIL TRACE"
After North Manchester and Liberty Mills had been located and the two settlements commenced to vie with each other in the founding of mills and business houses, the fame of the Eel River country in that part of the county began to draw a steady stream of new comers. The necessity for decent highways of travel thus became apparent. If we except the Indian trails leading from Eel River to Logansport and Fort Wayne, there were no roads penetrating that region from the Valley of the Wabash prior to the late '30s.
Largely through the exertions of Mr. Comstock, in 1838 and 1839, a road for a mail route was opened through
the woods from the big "canal town," La Gro, to Liberty Mills and North Manchester. A party from La Gro
worked north, and others from the northern towns worked southward, and so the road, crude though it was, came to
be. The principal object in opening it was to make a highway for the transportation of mail from La Gro to Liberty
Mills. It was long called the Mail Trace, although it was generally used by travelers cutting across from the Wabash
to the Eel River Valley.
THE RAILROADS MAKE NORTH MANCHESTER
Chester Township first agitated a railroad during 1850, the year of the completion of the plank road between
La Gro and Liberty Mills; and the railway project gave North Manchester a broader outlook than she had heretofore
enjoyed. It was proposed to place that town in direct communication with Detroit, and for a time it looked as if
the hopes of the citizens were to be realized. A large amount of grading was done, but suddenly the company failed
and the proposed railroad evaporated.
FIRST PREACHING BY ELDER FANNIN
From the best available testimony the church antedated the school by several years in Chester Township. In the
fall of 1835, Elder Bryant Fannin made his appearance at the cabin of Peter Ogan, just south of North Manchester,
and announced that he was searching for a homestead. He was a preacher of the Christian Church, as was James Abbott
who had settled at Liberty Mills. As Elder Fannin remained over Sunday, he was induced to conduct religious exercises
at the Ogan cabin, the families of Colonel Helvy, Mr. Abbott, and Peter. and John Ogan assembling to participate
in them. Upon that occasion the leader of the little class preached the first sermon in Chester Township.
This pioneer Christian society had an original membership of not more than a dozen, meeting twice a month in the Fannin cabin, and subsequently in a schoolhouse south of North Manchester, known as the Walters School. At a still later date the schoolhouse at New Madison, on the northwest quarter of section 22, was adopted as the meeting place, and thus continued until the close of the Civil war. About 1866 the congregation purchased a lot in the village of New Madison, or Servia, upon which a substantial brick church was erected and made permanent headquarters of the first religious body to be organized in Chester Township.
METHODISTS ORGANIZE CLASSES
About the time that Elder Fannin formed his class at North Manchester, Rev. Ancil Beach formed a small class
of Methodists both at that place and Liberty Mills; they were embraced in the Rochester Mission and assigned to
him as regular appointments. In 1843 the Liberty Mills Circuit was formed, with Rev. C. Wesley Miller, minister
in charge. In the following year Rev. Warren A. Griffith was sent to that circuit. As there was no parsonage within
his jurisdiction at this time, he moved his family to North Manchester and proceeded to arrange for the erection
of one, as well as of a church. During the year Mr. Griffith succeeded in having a parsonage and five new meeting
houses erected within the limits of the circuit.
SCHOOLS OF THE TOWNSHIP
As early as the winter of 1838-39, a subscription school was conducted by Miss Harriet Tullis in a cabin on
lot 39, Liberty Mills, and about the same time Thomas Keeler taught the first school in North Manchester, a building
having been erected for that purpose two squares north of the site of the present American House. This schoolhouse
also served as a church for several religious denominations until their houses of worship were erected.