Ice, Snow, Soot, and Sleigh Bells
By Jim Foster, Historical Society Board Member
Winter Weather has always played a prominent role in our local history. Wells County, in fact, was born in the dead of winter, on February 7, 1835, when the Indiana legislature created it out of the trackless, densely wooded wastes of the northeastern part of the state. It was also in winter that the county was organized, on February 2, 1837.
The next winter, on on January 20, 1838, the legislature appointed special commissioners to choose a place for the county seat of the new and largely unpopulated county. Later that winter, after a heavy snow, Daniel Miller, made a heroic overnight journey, on horseback, all the way to the Ohio line, far beyond the present site of Geneva, Indiana, through an almost impenetrable forest, to bring the fifth commissioner, Zachariah Smith, to the cabin in Bluffton, where the voting was to take place. The next morning, after Miller and Smith arrived, the site where Bluffton is now situated was designated as "the seat of justice" for the fledgling Wells County.
For the next 30 years or so, winter was a time of great discomfort, inconvenience, and even danger to most who lived here. Until about 1870 the pioneer experience was still the prevailing way of life in rural areas, and even those who lived "in town" had to put up with drafty houses, the threat of fires, cruel winter sicknesses, and, between blizzards, the mud and floods that inevitably followed a temporary thaw. On the farms, of course, all this was compounded by the isolation and loneliness that came of living far from neighbors, on narrow dirt roads that were impassible when drifted with snow, or when churned into quagmires of oozy mud.
Until the great tide of technical improvements that washed over the eastern seaboard in the 1820s and 30s could find some way of penetrating to the hinterlands and backwoods, people here were generally denied access to oil lamps, mass-produced furniture, warm carpets on the floors, and cast-iron stoves. Even ready-to-wear clothing, inexpensive and warm against the cold, was unavailable until the plank road (1851) enabled large freight wagons pulled by oxen to bring some of the amenities to Bluffton, and thence to outlying villages and farms. Fortunately, the Lucifer match had been invented in 1827 and was now widely available for starting the life-sustaining fires that every household depended upon for both warmth and the cooking of palliative food.
Travel on the old plank road was slow and difficult during most of the winter. The big, unwieldy stage coaches slid about precariously on the ice and frequently landed in a ditch. Passengers had to get out and walk in drifts up to their knees oftentimes. Horses bolted at unexpected noises, such as the deafening cracks made by frozen trees as they split down the middle and fell to the forest floor with a thunderous crash. Wrecked wagons and other debris littered the routes of all such primitive roads.
Winter rains were perhaps even worse than blizzards. Bluffton newspapers frequently complained about the muddy, rutted streets in town and the washed-out roads, bridges, and fences throughout the county. In the mid-1860s high water everywhere prevented businessmen from buying land and timber during the winters. Stage coaches couldn't pass through the low bottom land north of the river on their way from Fort Wayne to Bluffton. Vehicles and low wagons had to unload at Peter Studabaker's barn (near the present site of the Pizza Hut) and ferry passengers and goods south to the bridge. The roadway was raised in later years.
Floating ice caused abutments on the Bluffton bridge to crumble "like clay and loose pebbles," said the Bluffton Banner in the winter of 1867. In January of 1870 the new railroad span further downstream began to collect debris and ice jams in its trestle work. John Studabaker, very nervous about the safety of his new railroad, posted guards during the night to keep the channel clear. A massive build-up of ice and drifting tree-trunks would have swept the bridge away like matchwood.
By 1870 the new railroad had begun to make a profound impact on the daily life of the entire county. Not the least of the changes that came in its wake was the unprecedented availability of inexpensive machine-made goods that lightened the worker's burden and made existence more comfortable for all during cold weather. Cheap, efficient cast iron stoves, sewing machines, and warm, inexpensive clothing, including factory-made gloves and mittens, were among the chief improvements. The introduction of coal for heating and cooking was another. It was a less wasteful fuel than wood and was far safer to burn. Coal cinders and ashes came to be a familiar sight in the alleys and at the intersections of slippery streets during icy weather, and this condition prevailed until fairly recent times, when the ready availability of heating oil and natural gas made coal obsolete.
Cold weather had its lighter side, of course. Snow, unless unless it had fallen in prodigious quantities, was generally welcomed in winter. The bad roads and streets were suddenly tolerable again, provided one had a sleigh or sled and a horse or two to go prancing along with. Ruts, potholes, and quagmires were forgotten for a time, and farm families bundled themselves up and set out to call on neighbors and relatives. In town, sleighs and merry sleigh-bells were the order of the day, and dreary winter life suddenly seemed more cheerful. Big sledges and sleds were able to ignore the broken-down roadbed of the plank road, while it was still in service, if there happened to be enough snow on the ground.
In town, too, there were always gangs of boys who ran up behind sleighs and sleds and "piled on" in a very rowdy and noisy manner, sometimes frightening the horses and passengers. Before the advent of the salt compounds used today on our major streets, such pranks continued well into the automobile age wherever there was a snowy thoroughfare available.
Whenever there was a frozen pond, creek, or river, youthful ice skaters could be seen whirling and gliding gracefully along, and at night, especially if there was a moon, sleighs with merrily jingling bells conveyed parties of young couples to neighboring communities for dances and birthday celebrations. Many a romance, resulting in marriage, began under the snug buffalo robes of a swiftly running cutter.