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

Thursday, March 12, 2015

H.E. Bucklen, Medicine Man and Real Estate Tycoon

In my last post, I talked about the Shipshewana Indians baseball team of the early 1900s, which is pictured on one of the Shipshewana Walldogs murals.  The founder of the team, Mr. H.E. Bucklen, had such an intriguing story that I decided not to skimp on it, but save it for another day—so here it is.  It’s my longest post ever, but there’s a lot to tell—and I’m just hitting the highlights!

Bucklen’s full name was Herbert Elijah Bucklen, Sr.  I searched for details about Herbert and his family on, and there was plenty to discover!  Articles from supplied even more details.  This man had a huge paper trail.

Herbert was born in Herkimer County, New York in 1848, but the family relocated to Coldwater, Michigan in the 1850s.  By late 1860 they lived in Elkhart, Indiana and at the time of the 1870 census, Herbert, age 22, was a druggist alongside his father, Isaac Bucklen. 

A biography of Bucklen appeared in The Indianapolis News (8/16/1902).  In it, Bucklen says that he began buying real estate and building small homes when he was a teen, reinvesting the profits in real estate—and by the time he was twenty, he owned 32 houses in Elkhart.  At the same time, he says, he worked in the back room of his father’s pharmacy developing his own special patent medicine—“Bucklen’s Arnica Salve.”  Herbert married a Michigan girl named Bertha Redfield in 1877, and obtained a patent for his salve in 1878.  He and Bertha then moved to Chicago, where he sunk his patent medicine earnings into real estate in the growing city.

The newspaper ads for Bucklen’s Arnica Salve were really something!  I went to and found at eight of them which ran between 1908 and 1911 in various Indiana papers.  Set up like little newspaper articles, they contained such headlines as “Best Healer in the World”—“Frightful Fate Averted”—“It Does the Business”—and “Suffering and Dollars Saved.”

The ads claimed the salve would cure cuts, corns, bruises, burns, boils, ulcers, eczema, old sores, cold sores, fever sores, scalds, scars, cracked lips, chapped hands, chilblains, sore eyes, skin eruptions, salt rheum, gangrene, pimples, and let’s not forget “piles” (hemorrhoids)!  And for the ladies—“Women desiring beauty get wonderful help from Bucklen’s Arnica Salve… It makes the skin soft and velvety.  It glorifies the face.”  Well worth the 25 cents!

Happy users gave testimonials like this one from Frank Disberry of Kelliber, Minnesota:  “I would have been a cripple for life from a terrible cut on my knee cap without Bucklen’s Arnica Salve, which soon cured me.”  Or this one, from Rev. F. Starbird of East Raymond, Maine:  “I have used Bucklen’s Arnica Salve for several years on my old army wound… and find it the best healer in the world.  I use it too with great success in my veterinary business.”  Piles sufferer L.S. Napier of Rugless, Kentucky reported that “when all doctors and other remedies failed, Bucklen’s Arnica Salve cured me.” 

By the 1900 census, Herbert lived at 265 Michigan Avenue in Chicago with his wife and three children.  No occupation is listed.  In 1910, he lives at 281 Wabash with his wife, younger son, and a maid.  Again, no occupation.  But that area of North Michigan and Wabash Avenues was a very wealthy neighborhood, both then and now.  This building (pictured below) was both his home and laboratory facility.

By then Bucklen owned real estate in Chicago, zinc mines in Missouri, gold mines in Colorado, and a great deal of land in northern Indiana—especially Elkhart, where he built a grand opera house in 1884 (shown in this photo) and remodeled a magnificent hotel in 1889.  (Neither building still stands.)  Although Bucklen’s primary residence remained in Chicago, he had a strong presence in Elkhart.  He considered it his true home, and he was listed in its city directories—“occupation, capitalist.”  He sent his son Herbert Jr. to nearby Howe Military School.

 Another of his pet projects was the St. Joseph Valley Line Railroad, built in 1904-1905.  (This was a different railroad line than the more famous Pumpkin Vine Railroad, which ran north from Shipshewana into Michigan.)  The St. Joseph Valley Line was a “traction line” that started in Elkhart and ran east through Bristol, Middlebury, and Shipshewana to Lagrange.  Later a “railway line” extended the Valley Line east from Lagrange through Mongo, Orland, Inverness, Angola, and Berlin to Columbia, Ohio—a total of 70 miles in all.  The section from Elkhart to Bristol operated on electricity; from Bristol to Lagrange by gasoline engine; and from Lagrange to Columbia by steam engine.

When Bucklen was extending his railroad line eastwards from Lagrange to Ohio in 1905, he suggested to the residents of Angola, Indiana, that this would be a boon to their small community.  The millionaire asked the residents for $50,000 to help him with the project.  When they didn’t come up with the money, he was so offended that he decided to build a rival town.  An article in the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette (11/24/1912) said that the “Arnica Salve King” was planning to “build a city in Steuben County with the express purpose of injuring Angola, against which town he has conceived a grievance.”  But the railroad line did run through Angola, and the rival town (eight miles east of Angola) evidently was never built.

The railroad line was not nearly as profitable as Bucklen hoped—in fact, it lost a lot of money.   Running three kinds of power was complicated and expensive.  Business at the west end was very slow.  Bucklen poured large amounts of his own money into the project to keep it alive, but it was estimated by the Indianapolis News (4/4/1918) that he lost $1,750,000 on the project.  

Out of this interest, he was involved in the area baseball league which included the Shipshewana Indians, who played at a stadium he built on the south side of Shipshewana Lake.  An article in the Indianapolis News (5/30/1905) says, “Mr. Bucklen has prepared a plat for a summer resort at Shipshewana Lake, with streets and avenues and winding drives through the woods.  The resort is expected to attract many Elkhart people who have heretofore spent much time in Michigan.”  Special railroad cars brought fans to the baseball games on Sundays.

At one point Bucklen’s assets were thought to be worth $7,000,000, but when he died in 1917, he left his widow an estate which the Chicago Daily Tribune valued at $1,000,000.  (That would be equal to $17,000,000 today—still a nice chunk of change!)  Due to the popularity of his Arnica Salve, his death was reported in newspapers as far away as Honolulu. 

His wife Clara inherited her husband’s assets—but the Valley Line, managed by their son Herbert Jr., was already in financial trouble which only got worse as 1917-1918 progressed.  A severe winter, a drop of freight traffic, and a wreck in Inverness which produced serious injuries and fatalities were the final blows.  (The advent of the automobile probably didn’t help, either.)  The rail line soon went into receivership in preparation for being both legally and literally dismantled and sold for scrap.    

Bucklen’s funeral was held in Elkhart, and he was buried at Half Acre Cemetery in Cass County, Michigan, along with his wife Bertha.