Skip to content Skip to main navigation Skip to footer

How It All Began: A History of the Town

Chief Shipshewana and the Potawatomi Indians

In the early 1830’s the first white settlers of the present Newbury Township found this area to be inhabited by semi-nomadic tribes of North American Indians. A small band of Potawatomi Indians had chosen the area of the present Shipshewana Lake as the site for their campgrounds. The lake and nearby swamps and woodlands were sources for their livelihood. The chief of this small band of Indians was Shipshewana.

The combination of woods, lakes, rivers and rich open land made the St. Joseph River Valley an ideal place for the Potawatomi Indians. The forests and swamps were full of deer, bear, beaver, otter, rabbits, geese, ducks, pheasants, wild turkeys, and other small game. In their birch-bark canoes or from the shoreline, they could fish or explore the area. The Potawatomi men were the hunters, fisherman, and protectors of their bands or family clan. Also, there were fertile clearings where the Indian women would raise their small gardens of corn, squash, beans, and tobacco. These hardy women gathered roots, herbs, seeds, berries, and nuts to supplement the meat and fish. The Potawatomi Indians soon discovered this area provided all their needs and was, indeed, the garden spot in the Northwest Territory.

In 1803, President Jefferson doubled the size of the United States when he bought the Louisiana Purchase from France. Along with the scarcely populated Northwest Territory, the United States Congress now was endowed with an immense domain, plus huge war debts from the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. To provide the much needed money to pay these debts, the sale of these western lands became a solution. How to acquire the titles to the millions of Indian lands was the problem. The government policy concerning the Indians in the Northwest Territory was to eventually extinguish any land claims by repeated negotiated treaties, squeezing the Indians into smaller and smaller areas and eventually forcing them on reservations west of the Mississippi River.

Even before the government surveys were made, large land-grabbing companies and speculators and home-seeking settlers often arrived as squatters before Congress had passed the Removal Act for forcibly removing the Indians. Some Indians were induced to sign away their lands by presents and whiskey. Others were reluctant to leave the rivers and lakes, their hunting grounds, and the graves of their ancestors.

One of the most infamous acts of injustice by the United States government was the forced march of nearly 1,000 Potawatomi men, women, and children from northern Indiana to the Osage River in Kansas. A militia of a hundred volunteers was raised, and 876 unsuspecting Potawatomi Indians were collected. They were force-marched with drawn guns and bayonets for 665 miles in 61 days in the heat and dust of autumn. They left Indiana on September 4 and arrived in Kansas on November 4, 1838. A review of the Rolls of Indians taken for September 4, 1838 on what was come to be known as the Trail of Death contained the name “Shuw-a-aw-no”, which could be the phonetic spelling for Chief Shipshewana. It is most probable that the Chief’s little band of Potawatomi Indians had been on this infamous Death March.

On a monument dedicated to Chief Shipshewana at Lake Shipshewana is inscribed the following, “The Chief was removed from this reservation September 4, 1838 and was escorted to Kansas by a company of soldiers. He returned in 1839 and died in 1841.”

(This article is a condensed version of one written by Rachel Murray Celmer in a Centennial book entitled A PATCHWORK SAMPLER edited by Julie Wolfe, 1989.) 

 And Then The Settlers Came

A small town south of what is now Shipshewana called Shore had a couple of stores operated by John Kauffman and Jake Eash, a sawmill operated by Farver Brothers, a post office, a blacksmith shop, a school, a church, and a few other business establishments. The S and MS Railroad built a line from Goshen, Indiana to Battle Creek, Michigan during the 1880’s called the “Pumpkin Vine” because of the way it angled across the country. In 1888 the first train went through SHIPSHEWANA, and the town had its beginning. In the fall of 1888, with he building of the railroad, the civil engineer, J. J. Burns, planned the town free of charge. The first building erected was the depot, in fall of 1888, and the first residence was erected in 1889 and occupied by Mr. Stowe, the railroad agent. The first train passed through Shipshewana on December 25, 1888 from Goshen to Battle Creek. The town of Shore started to move toward Shipshewana after the location of the railroad.

The year 1889 was one of the big building years in the history of the town. A three-story building was erected by J.J. Farver for Hezekiea Davis, where the bank now stands. It was in this same year that the Summey addition was added, and four frame buildings were erected. It was this same year that the M.E. church, which was erected in 1886, burned. In all about thirty-five residences were erected besides the business buildings already mentioned. In addition, the railroad company constructed an elevator where the Wolfe Elevator (Hubbard Milling) now stands. After completion, it was sold to John Summey and S.S. Eash.

Abraham Summey and his wife Rachel came into the area in the late 1800’s. They owned the land on the west side of what is now State Road 5, north and south of Middlebury Road for a mile.

Hezikia Davis grew up in the Pashan area of Newbury Township where his father Amos served as a judge for he area between LaGrange and Middlebury. He and his wife Sarah owned all the land on the east side for a mile and a half. He and Summey could not agree where to have the main street of the town. There was a great demand for property, and each wanted to sell lots. Houses were being built fast. Summey started to lay out his town on the west side, and Davis went out in one of his 40 acre fields and began to lay out a town, too.

The depot was built were it stands today (now Gallerina Arts). A hotel and a big three-story building went up and a number of other small business places. The Farver brothers moved in and built a large planing mill and lumber yard, and the east side of the town was started. The town was laid out in 50 foot lots, and many of the first houses that still remain were built so that when you stepped out the front door, you were right on the sidewalk.

The west side of town had several store buildings, all built facing east along State Road 5. (A two-story brick building where Nick & Andy’s now stands was known as Sunthimer’s Corner, and it contained a general store and the U.E. Mast Drug Store). The first school house was built on the west side in 1893 by John Farver in the same location where the school stands today.

Davis, in laying out his town on the east side of the road, left a strip of land 150 feet wide from the Middlebury Road north to where the Wolfe Grain company’s elevator is located. No one could buy or build on the strip of land separating the two towns.

On the east side, Shipshewana was called Davis Town. After the death of Davis, when his estate was settled, the 150 foot strip of land dividing east town and west town called “No Man’s Land” had to be sold. It was laid out in lots and sold at auction. Today the land contains many nice buildings.

A big fire in 1900 took a whole block on the west side, and it was quickly rebuilt. In a few years, fire destroyed it again. In 1902 a big fire struck the east side of town, destroying a three-story building. Although the loss was great, it was soon rebuilt.

Shipshewana was a pretty lively town in those days. There were many large tracts of timber that had yet to feel the bite of an ax. The big band sawmill employed a lot of men, and it took many log haulers to keep the mill operating. That mill was located where the town park is today, and the railroad built a switch line back to the mill.

Back in those days, there were four saloons, three blacksmith shops, a hotel (Davis Hotel – still in use in today), two elevators, a weekly newspaper, an apple dryer, a bank and a laundry in Shipshewana. Mrs. Sarah R. Davis was president of the bank, and Hewlitt Davis was cashier. The bank was only open once in a while. In 1900 L.I. Miller was hired, and it began to be open every day.

Around 1900, the Valley Line was built, and the town had two railroads for a period of time. Soon after, the auto reduced the passenger business, and the tracks were torn up. The LS and MS ran four passenger trains and two freight trains each day to town. The last passenger train was stopped in the late 1980’s.

Summey, Kauffman, Big Dan Weaver, and several other men built a half-mile race track right in the woods north of town. There was a grandstand 100 feet long and a judge’s stand. Outside entrance stables were built for race horses and a ticket-office. Admission was generally fifty cents, and hundreds came for the races, and tents were put up for eating places. Jake Lupold ran a hack out from town.

The Methodist Church was built in 1890 on the east side of town. It it still in use by the Methodist Church today. The Congregational Church was built on the west side about 1906.

No town is complete without its physicians, so in 1890 we find Dr. S.M. Eash moving from Shore to Shipshewana. Even in 1889 he spent several months in the town before moving to the community. Dr. Eash was a messenger of life and death for more than forty years. He died in 1932. Other Doctors who have practiced in Shipshewana include Dr. H.W. Schrock, Dr. A.J. Hosteter, Dr. Hunn, Dr. Link, Dr. Ernest E. Norris, Dr. Allen S. Martin MD. and Dr. Dean Brubaker, DDS.

(From an article written by George Curtis in A PATCHWORK SAMPLER edited by Julie Wolfe; additional historical notes from an article in the 1936 edition of THE MIDDLEBURY INDEPENDENT.)

Early Amish/Mennonite History

Many years ago, Mennonite people (known as anabaptists) were persecuted in Europe. William Penn, who had a colony of people in Pennsylvania, heard about the religious people’s fate. He sent word to them that he would help them find homes if they would come to America. Many of them did.

After living with William Penn for some time, some of them got the urge to go west. Five men ventured to Indiana to find homes of their own. They went back to get their families and made the journey by covered wagons. It took weeks, maybe months. The area they chose for their future home s in Indiana was nice fertile soil with few rocks and they called it Forks. More families came, and a church was organized in 1841. In the spring of 1842, eight families arrived from Somerset county, Pennsylvania and settled in LaGrange County. In the fall of the same year, additional families arrived.

In addition to the Mennonites, the Amish have had much to do with the settlement and development of the area. It was in 1840 that a strong desire manifested itself among the Amish of Somerset County, Pa., to move to some Western State.

An investigating committee constituting of four men made a trip west in that year to seek a location. There were no railroads at that time so far west, and it is not known how they went to Pittsburgh, but from there they went by boat down the Ohio River, up the Mississippi to Burlington, Iowa. They went afoot from the to Iowa City. Returning, they came to the small village of Chicago and from there by boat across Lake Michigan and up the St. Joseph River.

They had four two-horse wagons and three one-horse wagons and left their homes June 3, 1841. They stopped a week in Holmes County, Ohio. At that time, the Black Swamp was almost impassable, so they went around it to the North, crossing into Michigan, and came through White Pigeon on June 28, 1841. They camped at the state line that night and passed through Middlebury the next day. They settled in small huts on the west side of Elkhart Prairie. Later, they all bought timber land from which they cut out homes for themselves and their families.

(Taken from Ida Stutzman & Rev. Eli J. Bontreger in A PATCHWORK SAMPLER Edited by Julie Wolfe.)