In giving a history of anyplace or of any people, we must necessarily break somewhere into an interlaced web of human events. Back of any beginning there is another beginning. Someone has said "that history has this much in common with eternity".
Thus back of the laying of the cornerstone, and as it were, in the foundation of the village of Middletown, we have the forest resounding with the din and cry of another people. A people whose shadowy ending blends perceptibly with the origins of a new era in history. The advent of the paleface even in the Fall Creek Forest, meant the removal of the last wigwam, the surrender of the happy hunting grounds, and the farewell whoop of the red man.
As early as 1822 when the first land was entered in the neighborhood of the present site of Middletown, a few scattered wigwams still marked the homes of the remaining Indians. The last one of these, White Wing, with his family, folded his tent, packed his goods upon the backs of his ponies, and in 1827 bade a reluctant farewell to his native forest. John VanMatre , who had settled three miles north of Middletown, had often related the story of their departure, as he witnessed it. After the ponies had been loaded and everything was in readiness, the Indiana mother mounted the first, man fashion, the oldest child, the second and so on, ranking according to age, then set out over a trail through the forest. The family tomahawk had been lost and White Wing fearing some evil might befall them, remained behind to find it. In his own language he remarked " I huntee, huntee, huntee till catchee, then I go" At this time the country in and around Middletown was a dense forest broken only by apparently bottomless swamps. No better illustration of the general character and appearance of the country is given than the following: In 1829 when Louis Summers entered the one mile north of Middletown, and settled thereon, he was sincerely impressed that no white man would ever settle farther west than he, so impenetrable and uninhabitable did the country then appear: but even this good man lived to see the forest yield to man's ambition; the fragrant calamus beds and ponds of blue flag give way to fields of grain and the graceful willow supplanted by the apple, the cherry and the pear.
The history of Middle town might properly date to the year 1822 when three men made their way into Fall Creek township. Two of these men were Benjamin and Reuben Bristol who entered land one mile west of town. These men did not, however, settle their claim and moved their families into the settlement until 1831. The government deed to this land is still held by Benjamin Bristol's daughter, and is signed by Andrew Jackson.
The first man who came onto Fall Creek township was Charles Williams, who cleared a spot, built a log cabin and began life in the wilderness about one mile east of town as early as 1824. A year or two later David VanMatre entered the farm owned at this writing by his son Cyrus VanMatre, and lying about one and one half miles north. In 1827 John VanMatre settled about three miles north. The following year Nathan Riley entered a tract of land south, abutting on the present corporation line, and the next year Louis Summers entered and settled upon the present Loring Pickering farm. About this time, 1828, Jacob Koontz entered the land over a portion of which Middletown was built. His was the first home established within our present boundaries.
This enterprising man took an early forecast of the future. New Castle was the nearest trading point, and under the most favorable circumstances a round trip on horseback took two days at least, and with a team much longer. Already several thrifty farmers had clustered here-about as I have mentioned and the possibilities and advantages of a village in the midst of the settlement became apparent. Koontz, who took about four acres of cleared land, took advantage of the out-look and laid off a portion of it in town lots. Nathan Riley has often related the circumstances attending the founding of this village. He was out hunting his horses in the forest and had followed the sound of the tinkling bell to within a few rods of the home of Koontz, Koontz came out to meet him and submitted his plans, and asked if he would assist in the survey, which he did. Their outfit consisted of a couple of poles and a string. This survey provided for two passage ways which were later made into streets. Fifth street as we now know it, began at the creek and ran north after an irregular fashion to the present junction with Locust. Locust extended one square east and about a half-mile square west from Fifth. The inaccuracy of this rude survey still remains evident. About twenty lots with an approximate width of four rods were marked off fronting these prospected. Christmas day, 1829, these lots were put up at auction to be sold to the highest bidder. David VanMatre cried the sales and succeeded in disposing of the lots at from three to twenty dollars each. For a time these lots were used by the owners as speculative property in making trades of various kinds. Nathan Riley came into possession of to affect a fine he had paid for one of the settlers who had fought to the excess of six dollars. This he traded to Parker, the blacksmith, for a log cabin.
Jacob Koontz, however, did not live to see the success of his enterprise. Early in 1830 he fell, the prey to the malaria of the district, and was laid to rest almost within a stones throw of his humble home. Years later when Sixth street was being cut and graded, his remains, along with those of two or three other early settlers, were discovered, tenderly cared for and deposited in the South cemetery. The second resident of the village was Chauncey Burr. He came in 1830 and very soon there after established a tannery and began the manufacture of leather, which industry he followed for about forty years. His first home was a modest log cabin crowning the hill northeast of the property known as the Burr homestead. Mr. Burr remained a life long citizen of Middletown, and was a enthusiast in his endeavors to advance the growth and the interest of the place. In 1839 he was elected Justice of the peace, which office he filled forty-three consecutive years. He did not regard it so much his duty, especially in the earlier days, to avert any violations of the law as to settle a retribution upon the accused, in just punishment thereof. It has been recounted of him, and not to his discredit, that often when coming in contact with some misdemeanor, he would turn his back upon the scene, and walk away, but when the culprit was brought to justice, he would render a fair and honest hearing of the case and fix a just penalty. He was largely instrumental in obtaining the first mail service. Later he was active in securing incorporation for the village, and engaged in enterprises relative to the prosperity of the town.
During the year 1830, Joshua Willet brought to the village a stock of goods and established himself as storekeeper. He built a log cabin on the ground now occupied by the Hotel block, which he used as a storeroom. His stock would scarcely have made an ordinary wagon load, but was sufficient to supply the needed demands of the settlement. David Fleming arrived the same year and entered competition in the mercantile business. Thus in 1832 the metropolis of Fall Creek township consisted of four log cabins, the business interest being a tannery and two stores.
The year 1830 marked a new epoch in the history of this predestined village. Previous to this year the nearest highway was that know as the Old State Road which had been opened through the frontier as far as New Castle. Pathways for men on horseback following the blazed trails through the woods, were the only outlets from this primitive world, except a rude wagon way that had been opened by the settlers to New Castle.
In 1830 the Old State Road was extended from New Castle to Anderson through Middletown. This road followed Fifth street to High street, thence westward to Seventh street, north on Seventh the distance of a square, thence diagonally through the forest which then covered the present fair grounds. The village at this time received the name, Middletown, being adopted from it's situation between the two larger towns. The opening of this road meant much relative to the growth and prosperity of the town and settlement. A Post Office was at once established, and Noah Turner chosen Postmaster. These people at first received one mail a week, providing no accident befell any one of the mail carriers along the route from the far east. This frequently happened. The Middletown mail was made up at New Castle, and Judge Bundy Sr. was the first mail carrier. At this time in the history of the United State, postage was charged in proportion to the distance over which a letter was sent, and paid by the recipient. Most of the earlier settlers of Middletown were originally from Virginia. It took a month for a letter to reach them from their native state, and cost twenty-five cents to get it out of the post office.
The opening of the State Road invited a steady flow of immigration to this district and westward, and industries of various kinds were introduced as the progress of the times demanded. The village smithy was established by a Mr. Parker. Another Mr. Parker kept a public tavern where travelers found food and lodging. Nathan Riley living a short distance south of town, also threw his latch string to the traveler, providing him with food, shelter and provender for his horses, or whatever stock he might be driving through the country. The first Riley Inn was supplanted by another more substantial and commodious. This still stands on the top of the hill as a monument to the memory of those interesting pioneer days. It scarce retains it's identity with it's present dress of weather boards and paint, but it is the same inn nevertheless.
Heretofore the voters of the township had met at the home of Abraham Thomas to cast their ballot, but in 1832 the polls were changed to Middletown. The malaria of the county created a good opening for a physician. Dr. Joseph Henry, of Philadelphia, was the first to take advantage of the opportunity. He came in 1832 and remained a citizen of the village until his death. He is still remembered as a good man as well as a good physician.
About this time there moved into the village a man whose life within the community is worthy of perhaps more than a passing remark. I refer to Josia Yount, as he was familiarly known, who brought his family and became a citizen of Middletown in 1832. He at once established himself as a successful and enterprising man in the community, one whose efforts were successful in promoting the general interest of the people. He at first opened a store, but afterwards connected himself with other business enterprises of the settlement. He was the first stock merchant and the father of the grain buyer, a great friend to farmers, and a reliable financier, as was proven by his management of several estates in the capacity of administrator and guardian. He was a member of the class of religious people know as Disciples of Christ, and his home was the meeting house of these Christian people for several years prior to the building of the Disciple church in 1850. In the erection of the church he took an active interest.
The extent of the settlement in 1833 justified the organization of a school. William Miller came into the settlement, and possessing the necessary qualifications of a schoolteacher, secured several scholars by subscription and opened a school, the first in the settlement. This school was taught in a little log cabin west of the village. The year following, a Mr. McPherson secured a subscription for sixteen scholars from the settlement and taught a three months term in a log cabin, which stood on the lot now owned by Dr. Griffen. Mr. McPherson received $1.25 per scholar, or $20.00 for the full three months term, and "boarded round" as was the custom at that time. After this more permanent arrangements were made in the line of education. Louis Summers deeded to the district a half acre of land lying opposite the present fair-grounds to be held by the district as long as it was used for school purposes. Here was built the first district schoolhouse in the settlement, about the year 1834. This schoolhouse was the type of all frontier schoolhouses, and yet so distinctively a part of the early history of this settlement that it seems fitting to briefly describe it. It was built of moderately sized logs, split into halves, the flat side forming the inside walls. A log was cut out the length of one side and the space covered with oiled paper which served a a window. A door was made of oak slabs hewed to a convenient thickness and held together with wooden pegs. A puncheon floor completed the construction of this palace of learning. The inside furnishings consisted of slab benches eight or ten inches in width and so high that the younger pupils sat with their feet dangling in mid air. A slab fastened about the three sides of the room served as a desk for the larger scholars. Another article of furniture was a paddle that always hung near the door. On one side of this paddle was painted the word "OUT" on the opposite side was painted the word "IN". When a pupil left the room the paddle was turned to say "OUT" and no other pupil had permission to leave the room while the paddle thus spoke. Upon on re-entering the room the paddle was turned over to say "IN", which granted the privilege to another pupil of leaving the room if need be. The hickory might also be mentioned as an absolute necessary article in this schoolroom. This the schoolmaster always carried under his arm during the session. William Fox was the first district schoolmaster. He is remembered as Grandfather Fox, and after two or three terms grew too old for further service in the profession. In the latter part of the thirties this primitive school building was destroyed by fire, and a more substantial one of hewed logs, with glass windows erected in its stead. Another log house, which was built sixty-five years ago about a mile south of town, was also used for school purposes. Later this house was moved into town and rebuilt. Recently it was purchased by Flem Showalter, and about one month ago was destroyed by fire. It was the last building in Middletown containing a pioneer history.
As early as 1833 Broother Jimmie Havens, a Methodist circuit rider, made his way into this settlement to look after the spiritual welfare of the people. He held the first Methodist meetings at the home of Benjamin Bristol west of town. Their meeting house was a humble home, and the person's own knees served as a rest for the Bible, but the services were no less fervent and impressive. Settlers walked through the forest for miles to attend these good meetings. In the year 1838 Mr. Bristol moved from his one room log cabin into a new hewed log house of two rooms. This gave new impetus to the Methodist cause. His home was amply commodious to carry on the work of the Methodist in all branches. Accordingly, a society was organized by Hezekiah Smith in 1838. After this quarterly meetings were held, they being the biggest days of the year in this settlement. The first Methodist society consisted of a membership of ten good people. Benjamin Bristol was chosen stewart and James McCune class leader. The society continued to make their home with Mr. Bristol until the church was built in Middletown in 1848.
A second Christian festival was held in the settlement in 1834 when the corn mill, two miles south, was erected. Prior to this time the people of the village and neighborhood took their corn to a mill near Milton in Wayne county or to Chesterfield to have it changed into meal. "Going to mill" took from two to four days, hence a mill with in easy reach proved a great advantage to the colony. The first corn mill was built by John Bills. It changed hands as a corn mill, two or three times and in 1848 was purchased by John Liebhart, who converted it into a woolen mill. Later it was moved to Middletown and is still owned by the Liebhart Bothers.
The first few crops of corn did not mature well owning to the poorly drained condition of the soil, rendering the crops a prey to early frost. Seed corn was therefore obtained from the older farms in Wayne County. During the first few years, bread made from wheat flour was unknown in this settlement. The cultivation of wheat had not been introduced and imported flour was a luxury beyond the limited means of a pioneer. The first wheat was raised about 1832. The first two or three crops are referred to as "sick wheat." Bread made from the flour of this wheat served as a violent emetic. The sick wheat was followed by smutty wheat. This was taken through several courses of treatment after which it made fair flour. After the crop had been flayed out on the threshing floor it was separated from the chaff. A sheet and turkey wing served the purpose of a fanning mill. The grains were then dropped slowly from the hand into a tub of water. The good wheat would sink to the bottom and the chaff and light grains swam on top. After being taken through this wheat cleaner it wash washed through three or four waters, dried, then taken to Connersville to mill, A crop averaged from two to ten bushels. Bread made from this flour was served as one of the greatest table luxuries. One of my informants tells that her deepest impression of the Sabbath day was the serving of the white loaf for breakfast. In the latter part of the thirties the success of the wheat raising led to the erecting of a grist mill on Sugar Creek within easy access of the village and vicinity.
During the latter thirties and early forties the aspect of the village and the country adjoining changed rapidly. The little log cabin with it's oiled paper panes was giving place to the more substantial hewed log house with windows of glass. New industries were gradually opening in the interest of the people, and the spirit of progress made manifest. Henry Pierce, a dry goods merchant, erected a business block on the site of the present Simon Summers building. In this building he kept a general store. Andy Friar built a real frame house in the village to excite the envy and admiration of all. Ephraim Cole established a hattery in the village about this time. He was succeeded in this industry by George Roop, and a still later by Thomas Jackson, who is still a resident. Fur caps for winter and wool hats on the stovepipe order, napped with fur, were the prevailing styles. The country boys found in this place a market for their mink, muskrat and 'coonskins.
The year 1840 was the beginning of another epoch in this history. The prosperity and the growth of the town justified a government of their own. A petition was drawn and signed by fifteen enterprising citizens. This secured for the town an incorporation. Soon woods within the boundaries, were leveled and new lots laid off and streets made. A schoolhouse was built and the history of the town became distinctively her own.
In 1847 the attention was called from the local affairs of the community to the affairs of the government. The United States was in war with Mexico and soldiers were needed. Fifteen brave men went forth from Fall Creek township to the scene of the action. These men were: Charles and James Fifer, David VanCisco, George Tarkleson sr., David Warner, Henry Shank, Eugene and Norval Fleming, Harrison Roby, Eliam Armfiels, William and Chapman Mann. After the proclamation of peace all of these except one returned to their homes. David Warner they left sleeping upon the shore in the gulf of Mexico.
In 1856 the Pan-Handle Railroad Company completed their road through Middletown. With this event the history of Middletown loses much of its individuality and becomes a community at large.
In justice to those to whom I am indebted for most of the facts in this paper, I venture a few closing remarks more or less personal. After another generation much that has been told of this early pioneer life shall have passed into tradition and folklore. To the child of the approaching new century the real pioneer hero in all his various experiences of life, yes, even the early heroes and heroines of Middletown may be recalled only, perhaps, as characters in fiction. Even today the children listen to the stories of pioneer life as to some fairy tale.
There still lives in Middletown four people who were connected with the very earliest life in this village. Elizabeth Summers VanMatre, whose father entered the Loring Pickering farm in 1829 Catharine Bristol Pickering, daughter of Benjamin Bristol who settled one mike west on 1833, and Horace, son of Louis Summers who entered the land upon which the northern half of Middletown now stands. These were children then. They know not the wolf that walked and talked with "Little Red Riding Hood," but the real wolf that barked and howled about their cabin doors, feeling the sense of safety only when the bon-fire was kept burning to frighten them off. Their knowledge of the wild hog was not obtained from the traveling menagerie of Barnum, but from those that roamed through the forest filling their child lives with constant fear. They had never heard of "Jack The Giant Killer," but real stories of the tomahawks and the scalping knife were related about the hearth. The deer drinking from the brook were not shown them in the picture books, but appeared before their very eyes. Two of these children have mentioned to me that the dearest pets ever owned were fawn captured from the forest and tamed by their own hands. It was not Riley's bear story that interested them, but the real savage grizzly, two of which were killed very near the village.
They tell today of the manufacture of their own linsey-woolsey gowns by their own hands. From the scutching and hackling of the flax, through spinning, weaving and the making of them. A rare, bright calico was the finest dress they then ever hoped to possess. They tell with enthusiasm of the wool picking, the wood-chopping , the log rolling, the corn husking and the quilting with the never failing accompaniment of the good, old-fashioned chicken pie, such as our mothers and grandmothers could bake. The happiness of the girl today is based upon the ownership of a wheel, but the possession of a side-saddle marked the fulfillment of the highest wish of one of these pioneer girls. The ease with which she mounted and sat in the saddle would excite the envy of the present generation of girls. The youth claimed no higher boon than to canter side by side with his sweetheart, mounted in a good saddle upon a good horse. An aunt can still point out the very shade tree beneath which she and her friend rested when coming from Greensboro to Middletown for an all day visit. The interest with which these four children have recounted their early life and experience is just proof that the past history of this place and people embodies a fullness of life in its development, its cares, its pleasures and its reward.