My Thoughts About One of My Favorite Places--Northeastern Indiana's Amish Country

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Shipshewana Walldogs, Part One: Bennett Blacksmiths


In 2014 Shipshewana was fortunate enough to be chosen to host a gathering of painters who left a remarkable set of sixteen murals on buildings all over the small town.

The event was hosted by an organization of sign and mural painters who are known as "The Walldogs."  (More information about them can be found at www.thewalldogs.com.)  They spent four days in June creating some remarkable work that paints a visual history of sixteen important people, places, and business from Shipshewana's past.

There are two different brochures available which show the location of all sixteen murals, but neither one says much about the scenes depicted.  I did a little digging, and this first post is about one of the largest murals:  Bennett Blacksmiths.

This mural is found on the north side of the Shipshe General Store building, which is at 420 North Van Buren Street (Route 5).  The text reads, “Bennett Blacksmiths.  Miles and Willard Bennett, Proprietors—Shoeing Shipshewana from 1902 to 1954.” 

I wanted to know more about this business and its proprietors.  An old photo in the archives on the Shipshewana town website shows the shop, looking just as it does in the painting at the left side of the mural.  The words on the sign over the door say “Shoeing – Repairing – New Shoes – Miles Bennett.”  The caption says, “The blacksmith shop was built in 1892 by Abraham Summey [one of the founders of the town], and operated by Miles Bennett from 1902 to 1943.  The locals took their horses here to get shod.”

I did some further digging on ancestry.com.  Miles Bennett and Willard were father and son, and although the mural names them both as proprietors, Willard must not have been there long.

Miles was born in Indiana in 1897.  He was married in 1894 to first wife Jennie and they had a son in 1895—Willard.  Poor Jennie died in 1899, and in the 1900 census, I found Miles living alone and working as a “ditcher” while his young son lived with his maternal grandparents. 

Miles must have had the blacksmith business by 1902, if the caption on the old photo I found are correct.  By 1910, father and son were reunited with Miles’ new wife Alice—Miles was 40 and a blacksmith, and son Willard was 15 and had no occupation.

By 1917, 22-year-old Willard’s World War One draft card described him as tall, medium build, blue eyes, and blond hair.  He must have already broken with his father’s blacksmith business, as he lived in Sturgis, Michigan and worked as a “furniture polisher” at the Royal Chair Company.

The 1920 and 1930 census records find Miles still running the blacksmith shop.  By 1930 son Willard has married and moved to Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, where he is an insurance agent.

By 1940, Miles is 70 years old, but still working at the blacksmith shop full time—52 weeks the previous year, according to the census.  His son Willard is a factory machinist in Westmoreland County, so he did not come home to take over the business as his father got older.  Was there a rift?  Or was Willard just not interested in being a blacksmith?  Or did Shipshewana hold bad memories for him, perhaps because of the death of his mother and his shuttling off to live with his grandparents? 

Miles died in 1943 and was buried in Shipshewana’s Sidener Cemetery with both his wives—Jennie and Alice.  When his son Willard died in 1954, his wife had him buried in Shipshewana, near his father and mother.

Is horseshoeing a thing of the past in Shipshewana?  Certainly not.  As long as there are Old Order Amish in the area, there will be plenty of horses.  There is no blacksmith shop in Shipshewana today, but there are a number of local men, both Amish and “English,” who provide this service.


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