Portland Mills, part 2
The focal point of a small community was typically the various stores and trading posts throughout its history. As noted in “Portland Mills Remembered” the first store was probably a trading post which had its beginning shortly before Samuel Steele and his son built a dam across Raccoon Creek and constructed the grist mill and sawmill in 1825, but this store may have been predated by an early trading post prior to 1820. The early settlers came to the mill, and while waiting for their corn and wheat to be milled, traded with Steele for needed items such as salt and calico. His trading business thrived, and he then built a new building to conduct his trading business. This was the beginning of the Portland Mills store.
Sometime prior to the Civil War, Samuel Hart and Adam Sellers ran the big store.
Also, Reuben Slavens and George Inge were operators of the general store in this
same time period, and in 1853-1854 Alexander Ramsey was proprietor of the
store. In the 1880s the store was operated by Mr. Garver. Albert Spencer had recorded that Mr. Garver hired a man by the name of Cap Watkins to run a horse-drawn peddler wagon. This is believed to be the first peddler wagon in the area.
Fire destroyed the store on November 1, 1921, and also the home of John S. Alexander, just to the south. (Note: The February 1985 issue of Parke Place magazine has an article about this fire.) It was the father of Ray Rivers who then took over and built the new one-story store building to replace the one destroyed by fire. After a short time, he sold the store to Faye Spencer and Harold Gibbs who operated the store in the 1920s. They continued the practice of having a peddler wagon or huckster go out on regular routes to the homes in the country. The peddler was a great convenience and much appreciated by the farm women.
Sometime in the mid-1920s, Mr. Spencer and Mr. Gibbs had installed two hand operated gas pumps to sell gasoline for the numerous automobiles and the few trucks in the area.
Faye Spencer kept a ledger of the daily sales of the store by customer. In those
days, normal business practice was to buy goods on credit rather than paying for
each individual purchase, and then, if the store owners were lucky, the customer
would settle up at the end of each month. The store was sold to Lester Sewell in 1931. Lester and his wife Vera worked full time in the store. Lester added a wing to the grocery store on the south side of the building. He also expanded the huckster business by adding trucks until he had a fleet of four peddler wagons. One truck covered Greene Township, a second one had routes covering Union Township, a third one covered Clinton Township, and the routes of the fourth truck went into Russell Township and up into southern Montgomery County. In addition to these four huckster wagons, Lester Sewell had a truck which he used to drive to
Hulman’s at Terre Haute to haul his groceries and merchandise back to the
Portland Mills store.
One of the pictures attached is that of the Sewell grocery from 1838, courtesy of Malcom Romine. The huckster trucks sitting in front of the store were all parked in Putnam county and almost all of the store building to the west was in Parke county.
In 1939 Sewell's sold their store to The Williams family, long-time residents of Portland Mills, who operated the store until the lake came in. A ledger containing a list of the 379 credit customers the store carried from March 1, 1853 to December 30, 1854 is included in “Portland Mills Remembered” and serves as an outstanding listing of the residents of the community at that time.
The Old Covered Bridge
Prior to 1856, Raccoon Creek isolated the north end of Portland Mills from the south end, particularly in times of high water. There began a movement to build a bridge to link the community, and to see that the mails got through at all times of the year. The ultimate location selected for the new bridge was on the Parke County side of the county line, and the community was gladdened when the county commissioners of that county constructed the bridge. The bridge underwent repairs in 1909, 1922 and 1939. But the 1957 flood damaged the foundations of the bridge and the subsequent construction of the Mansfield dam raised the water levels at the bridge to the point the bridge was no longer suitable. The bridge itself was deemed to be stable and was moved in December of 1960 near Guion in Greene Township of Parke County to replace the Dooley Station bridge which had been destroyed by arson. At its new location, the bridge was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, listed as the second oldest bridge in Parke County. The bridge fell victim of neglect and began to deteriorate. Due to fundraising efforts from various groups, particularly the Portland Mills Homecoming Association, the bridge was repaired and reopened in 1996 by the Parke County Commissioners, who refunded the private donors for this effort.
Other News Items
Newspaper articles in the early 1880’s referred to a community known as Hathaway’s Mills, which was apparently near Portland Mills, probably just a few miles upstream or downstream. I have not been able to pinpoint the location of this community and would appreciate any information about it.
Portland Mills was a progressive community. An article in the Greencastle Banner on October 19, 1882 discussed meetings from the local Equal Suffrage Committee, with Susan B. Anthony being noted as one of the speakers.
Apparently, the Monon rail line planned a spur to reach the coal fields in Parke and surrounding counties in the 1880’s. Several newspaper articles in 1887 indicated active surveying was being undertaken a mile and a half south of Portland Mills for such a line, which would be near the Ocean-to-Ocean highway, later known as U. S. Highway 36. Even though these newspaper articles basically indicated the rail line was a sure thing, it was never built.
Situated in the low lands along the Big Raccoon Creek, Portland Mills was prone to flooding and was hit by devasting floods several times. The most noteworthy were the floods of 1875, 1913, 1937/1938 and 1957, with the latter setting in motion a series of events that would essentially become the death knoll for the once vibrant community.
At one time, it was starting to look like the two parts of Portland Mills would be isolated from each other, being on opposite sides of the new reservoir, and the old creek bed being too low for a bridge. Congresswoman Cecil M. Harden, of Covington, Indiana, who represented the sixth congressional district from 1949 to 1959, was instrumental in getting a new steel and concrete bridge over the new reservoir to link both parts of Portland Mills. A quick note, Cecil M. Harden (1894-1984) was the only female congresswoman from Indiana during the time she served. She was born Cecil Jane Murray and married Frost Harden. It appears the M. in Cecil M. Harden represented her maiden name. The new bridge was a bit downstream and much higher than the old bridge, allowing Portland Mills to be linked from north to south. When the water level for the reservoir is let down during the winter months, one can see the remnants of the old bridge abutments and the old roadways from a vantage point near the new bridge. These features are underwater most of the year.
According to Malcolm Romine, the covered bridge, Christian Church, mill and saw mill were located in Parke County. The grocery was on the county line, so it was in both counties. The doctor’s office, grade school, a smaller grocery, drug store, saddle shop, tailor, barber and in its later years the PBX were in Putnam County.