Mills, Mayhem and Masons… Oh My!
The village of Millersville is located on the border of Washington and Lawrence townships in northeastern Marion County. It is roughly defined by Kessler Boulevard, 56th Street, Emerson Way, Fall Creek Road, Fall Creek Parkway and Fall Creek, itself. The locality was never formally incorporated or platted.
The gentleman widely considered to be the town’s “founding father,” Peter Negley (1777 – 1847) moved his family from Pennsylvania to Washington Township in 1824. Negley acquired property through a government land grant for $300 in a locality that was colloquially called Brubaker’s Mill. Most sources cite the official founding of Millersville to 1838 when land began to be sold off in lots that ranged in size from a fourth- to a quarter-acre for homesteads and businesses.
According to David J Cord’s “History of Millersville Lodge,” Millersville was hard on millers. Owning and successfully operating a mill in Washington Township was evidently quite a feat. Cord offers a most entertaining retelling of the history, where properties changed hands quickly and misadventure seemed to be the rule:
“As the area was growing, Seth Bacon and Peter Negley formed a partnership for the purpose of constructing and operating a sawmill on Fall Creek just north of the little village. Their dam backed up water against Daniel Ballenger’s mill which stood nearby. The common refuge of last resort, a lawsuit, yielded the new mill to Ballenger as damages. John Essary ran the mill for some time, until he in turn sold it to Noah Leverton. Leverton erected a grist mill on an area just south of the town on the site that was to become famous as the site of the first meeting place of Millersville Masonic Lodge. Leverton operated this new mill for a few years, and then sold it to Chauncey and Samuel True. These brothers had the mill destroyed by fire and sold the site to Jacob Brubaker. Brubaker improved the area with a new mill and a stone house, and disappears from memory as his predecessors have done with the sale of the mill to Christ Haushey. Haushey, regardless of his exalted name, became permanently deceased just a year after his purchase. Jacob Spahr decided to tempt his own fate and himself purchased the mill. A fire threatened Spahr’s hopes by destroying the second mill, but he later brought in a partner, William Winpenny, who rebuilt the fire-destroyed mill and opened a distillery as well.”
Now, I know what you’re thinking… that’s a lot of milling around! But, stick with the story because it gets even better. “Winpenny bought out Spahr and owned the mill for several years, and after his death it was owned by his heirs. They then sold it to Tobias Messersmith, who discovered how profitable it was to sell the mill at a high price during the peak of the grinding season and to repurchase it at a low price during the slow off-season. Messersmith did this a total of three times, selling the mill to and repurchasing it from William Sala, John Carlisle, and a man named Russell. While Carlisle owned the mill, it was destroyed by fire a third time, and he erected the fourth mill on the site filled with the most modern of equipment. This fourth mill was purchased from Russell by William H. Spahr. After this second Spahr, the mill disappears from history. It was torn down six years into the twentieth century, and the timbers were transplanted to the Schofield mill that was under construction at that time.”
According to local lore, no one can reliably claim to have seen the foundation remnants of the old mill since 1937. Some believe that the remaining stones and timbers were buried under the developments along Fall Creek, or perhaps by the meanderings of the creek itself.
Mills aside, the rest of Millersville served as a reliable way station for the stage coaches that regularly travelled between Waverly and Pendleton. Passengers, drivers, and their animals found accommodation near the smithy and food in the general store.
The village was at its most vibrant been the 1840s through 1860s — during the time the mill and distillery were owned and operated by William Winpenny and Jacob Spahr. However, by 1884, the village had “retrograded” to eighteen lots and a population of 86. At that time the village contained “fourteen dwelling houses, one blacksmith-shop, a Masonic Hall building, two business houses, and one (water) flouring- and grist-mill. The post office, which had opened circa 1844, had closed by 1884. Though the town had been in relative decline, there was one note of prosperity in 1882: the Millersville Free Library was opened to the public with “five hundred and fifty-five volumes of the most judiciously selected books.”
Structures that still remain can be found at 5580 Dequincy Street and along the west side of Millersville Road. The Joseph Ringer-Johnson House on Dequincy Street dates to circa 1855. The Millersville General Store at 5422 Millersville Road dates from around 1870 and the Winpenny House at 5504 Millersville Road dates from circa 1865. In between these residences stands a more recent Dutch Colonial Revival house at 5440 Millersville Road, circa 1910.
In the early part of the 20th century, the area around Millersville became best known for its dairy farms, including the Hornaday Milk Company and Roberts Dairy. Little, if any, commercial development took place in the area until after Emerson Way was built in 1962. The new Emerson Way bridge supplanted the Millersville Road bridge and opened the area to easier travel from the south.
The north end of the Millersville commercial district is anchored by the Millersville Masonic Lodge which boasts a rich and well-documented heritage of its own. The lodge was founded in 1852 — at first, meeting in the loft of the Winpenny Mill — and subsequently moving into its current facility in the mid-1920’s. Next week’s Friday Favorites article will explore the history of the Millersville Masonic Lodge.
Special thanks to the Facebook group, “Marion County Indianapolis History” for sharing their private collections and recollections of the Millersville area. Crowdsourcing produced a hurricane (historicane!) of helpful material — enough for several Millersville articles:
What’s in Store? (the Millersville general store)
Masons of Millersville
Millersville Millionaires: Laurel Hall, the Fletcher Family Home
It’s a Small (After)world: Fall Creek Cemetery & Ebenezer Lutheran Church
History, Herstory, Mystory… YOURstory: Do you have personal stories of Millersville or a private collection of area photos? Please share with us in the comment section below…