From the Files of the Kosciusko County Historical Society
Editor’s note: This is a retrospective article that runs a few times a month on InkFreeNews.
The first inhabitants of Milford and Van Buren Township, excluding possible pre-historic ones, were the Miami, who came about 1750, and the more numerous and war-like Potawatomi, who arrived a few years later.
By the time the first white men entered Van Buren Township, many Indian villages existed. The principal village in the township being that of Wawasee or Waubee, which was located off the southeast end of present day Waubee Lake and contained about 75 tribesmen.
Wawasee was a minor Miami chief and the brother of the great Chief Papakeechie (Flat Belly). Wawasee, who, like his brother, was quite large and strong and wore a fish bone or silver through his nose. After the tribes were removed to Kansas, Wawasee escaped, returned to his ancestral home and finally disappeared into Michigan about 1839.
The first white man to make an impact on Van Buren Township was the French Canadian trader, Dominque Rouseau, who built his post between the present day sites of Milford and Leesburg. Dominique is believed to have married first, a daughter of Chief Wawasee and second, Aggie Ervin. The Rouseau family eventually moved into Leesburg, where Dominique died in 1845.
In October of 1832, a treaty was signed near Rochester, Ind., and released for settlement land, which included Van Buren Township. March 1833 saw approximately 30 families congregated to settle on Little Turkey Prairie. According to history books, William Felkner arrived just a few days before the others, claimed land near what is now Waubee Lake, and built a home for his family. Although it is disputed by some, the first white child to be born in Kosciusko County is said to have been Rachel Felkner, born to William and his wife, Mary Ann, on May 15, 1833.
A family tradition tells that his baby girl was at one point adopted by the neighboring Indians supposedly to fill the void left by the death of a little Indian princess.
Felkner, being a man of firsts; was the first county commissioner from Van Buren Township and had first township school, log structure, built in 1833, with John Woods as the teacher.
Milford, which is reported to have been at one time called “Pucker Huddle,” was platted on April 10, 1836, by Judge Aaron M. Perrine, who named four streets for his children: Catherine, Emeline, Henry and James. Judge Perrine encouraged settlement of the town by opening his home as a hotel.
The name Milford, or Mill on the Ford, was delivered from the mill located near the ford across Turkey Creek on the south edge of the village. A number of saw mills have operated on the creek including those of John Robinson, who built one of the first houses in Milford, and John Egbert, who also built a grist mill on the creek in 1839.
As more people settled in the township and town, the need for goods and services grew. A blacksmith shop was started in 1836 by Samuel Sacket and medical care was available by 1839 when Dr. Nathan Chamberlin, also a postmaster, began his practice.
During this period, Joseph Godwin erected the first “real” hotel, and merchants, Chipman and Dolittle, started their business. Before railroads came to the area, a string of hacks and a stage line operated every day except Sunday, and carried mail, passengers and freight.
The years prior to the Civil War brought more settlement and increased activity. By the early 1850’s, the Methodists had organized congregations and other denominations were beginning to form, Dr. Edward Higbee even built his home, a large imposing home on South Main Street in Milford, with a hospital for the Civil War wounded in mind.
Following the war, the community grew at a rapid pace, The Cincinnati, Wabash and Michigan (later the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis or the Big Four) came in 1870 running north and south and in 1874 the Baltimore and Ohio was built running east and west. At their junction just north of Milford, a small community sprang up and was known as Shakespeare, but later the name was changed to Milford Junction.
Newspapers first came into print in Milford in 1878 with the establishment of the Times. The editor was J. A. Werntz, a dedicated prohibitionist. The Milford Mail, which began in 1888, was the forerunner of today’s Mail Journal and was edited by W.E Groves, a Methodist lay minister.
Milford was incorporated in 1880 with the first officers being Isaac Hall, president; John Hoppengarner, clerk; David Becknell, treasurer; and James Hoffman, marshal.
Some of the businesses that were in operation by the turn of the century were: Two grain elevators, which were operated by Whethen and Hibgee and by Martin and Felkner; an ice house, located just west of the present Waubee bathing beach; a furniture store and undertaking parlor owned by Keltner and Brittsan (the first undertaker had been Henry Heightsmith); many gravel pits and a marl pit in Waubee Lake; a tannery; stockyards; implements; making of pottery and the manufacturing of hot water heating systems.
Over the years fires have played a part in the town. Milord’s first industry, the hub and spoke factory that had been built in 1876, was burned in 1880. Several times over the years sawmills have been destroyed. And in 1902 the entire east side of the business district burned to the ground.
– Compiled by InkFreeNews reporter Lasca Randels