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Portland Mills, part 1

Several excellent publications exist regarding Portland Mills, such as “Portland Mills Remembered” 2001, by Don Harbison and Malcolm Romine. This book and several others are available at the Putnam County Museum. I am going to use parts of that publication, newspaper articles obtained from the Hoosier State Chronicles, and other sources, in an attempt to provide a brief overview. The history of Portland Mills is so rich and deep, I am going to need to split this into two separate posts. Look for part two in the near future.

Portland Mills has the unique distinction of being in two counties and four different townships. It is within Clinton and Russell townships of Putnam County and also Union and Green townships of Parke County. At one time the community was in two separate Congressional Districts. There is a historical marker at or near the point where these four townships intersect, which is included as one of the photos, as are photos of the old mill wheel and bridge abutments.

Portland Mills was one of the early communities settled, believing to have been first settled prior to 1820. It is believed the first to establish permanent homes in the area were Austin Pruett, Clark and Bill Butcher, Moses Hart, David Logan Cunningham, Clement Gore, John Foster, Lemuel Norman, and Samuel and George Steele. But they were certainly not the first to have lived in this area.

Physical evidence indicates Native Americans were here long before the European settlers came. There is a unique mill hole, a photo of which is attached, where it is believed the Native Americans ground or milled their corn using sticks and tree branches. There is also a cave along Racoon Creek referred to as Devil’s Den where there are writings on the walls typical of the style used by the Native Americans. It is also believed that fur trappers and traders co-existed with the Native Americans possibly prior to 1800 in the area. But it appears the Native Americans were mostly gone from the area by the time the settlers arrived.

It is stated in “Portland Mills Remembered” that there is some evidence that a crude trading post was at this area, which was originally known as Portland, prior to the admission of Indiana as a state in 1816. In 1819, Chauncy Rose and Captain Andrew Brooks started construction of a grist mill, sawmill, and distillery. By 1823, these were completed and doing business. Samuel Steele started a trading post to serve Indians and white settlers. Salt, seeds, gunpowder, and so forth, were very important to the pioneers. Further, Samuel Steele and his son George built a dam across Big Raccoon in 1825 and they started operating the first grist mill and sawmill in the area. The name of the settlement then became to be known as Portland Mills. Business was good as settlers for miles around brought grain to be ground into meal and flour. Indians, apparently adopting some of the white man's ways, brought in furs to trade for meal.

Samuel Steele did a thriving business. Salt continued to be a best seller, as was calico, which was hard to find. Some early travelers, who upon arriving in Indianapolis, asked about the availability of calico and were told to go fifty miles west to the thriving community of Portland Mills for that particular item. Mr. Steele expanded his store business and a new and larger store building was constructed. Salt sold for a high price. A barrel was worth about as much as 80 acres of uncleared land.

The grist mill became a focal point for the entire community of Portland Mills. Settlers and farmers for several miles around came to the grist mill to have grain ground, to buy other needed supplies, and to learn the latest news. It was often said in the early 1800s if you needed the necessities of life and some luxuries, they could be obtained at Portland Mills.

Post Office and Post Masters

A listing of postmasters often highlights the significant individuals of a community, and we see this is the case at Portland Mills, which had a post office from 1837 until 1904. Postmasters at Portland Mills and their date of appointment were: Garrard Hendrix, September 11, 1837; James Jackson, September 27, 1844; Samuel M. Hart, September 15, 1851; William C. Dickson, January 15, 1853; Henry Baker, November 6, 1854; Jesse D. Alexander, April 29, 1859; John Cook, June 25, 1861; John M. Hart, August 1, 1862; James T. Scott, April 5, 1864; A. E. Ramsay, January 25, 1875; Andrew French, August 1, 1876; Abraham H. Garver, May 16, 1881; Philip Kendall, December 13, 1881; John O'Meara, August 3, 1885; Matthias T. Hanna, July 21, 1886; Reeve C. Peare, October 19, 1887; Reeve C. Peare, December 7, 1888; John S. Alexander, May 3, 1889; F. S. Hamilton, April 1, 1893; John T. Carpenter, May 31, 1895; John S. Alexander, May 31, 1898; William Torr, July 18, 1902; post office was discontinued, and mail sent to Judson on December 31, 1904.

Portland Mills was also listed as a post office in Parke County with the following postmasters: Samuel Hart, September 15, 1837; William C. Dickson, January 15, 1853; Alexander E. Ramsey, January 25, 1875; Andrew French, August 1, 1876; Abraham H. Garver, May 16, 1881; Philip Kendall, December 13, 1881; John O’Meara, August 3. 1885; Matthias T. Hanna, July 8, 1886; Matthias T. Hanna, July 21, 1886; Reeve C. Peare, October 19, 1887, then listed as being in back in Putnam County on December 7, 1888. We can see that the post office was listed in one county, then the other, then back again several different times, with the same postmaster being listed as appointed in both counties on the same date on several occasions. Perhaps the postal service also had difficulty deciding in which county the community was located.

When the United States Civil War broke out in 1861, Portland Mills was eager to support the Union cause. It has been said that this community supplied more fighting men than any other its size. In newspaper articles for many years after, we see the Grand Army of the Republic holding reunions in the area. The publication “Portland Mills Remembered” contains detailed information of the veterans of the area who served in this, and other wars.

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