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The History of Historic Forks of the Wabash

Historic Forks of the Wabash has been a star on the tour maps of Huntington and northeast Indiana for only twenty-five years, but the site has long been a significant one.

The most prized artifact at Historic Forks is the Chiefs’ House.  The last Miami Chief, Francis Lafontaine, made it his home and headquarters until his death in 1847.  His widow, Catherine, lived there until her death two years later, when ownership of the house passed to her heirs.   Lafontaine descendants moved out of the house in 1932, and the house was rented until 1943 when provisions in the will of Catherine’s daughter, Archangel Lafontaine Engleman, allowed it to be sold.

Luke Sheer, a local businessman and historian, knew the importance of the house and purchased it, hoping that an historic park could be established with the house as its centerpiece.  He rented out the house until construction of the US 24 bypass in 1965 cut off its water supply.   The house suffered from vandalism and deterioration for a decade.  In 1975, two teachers at Huntington North High School, Jean Gernand and Mary Margaret Kelsay, set out to restore the Chiefs’ House.   They reactivated the school's  Junior Historical Society and, with funding from the Scheers, began renovation in the summer of 1977.  By 1978, work was far enough along to open the house for Sunday afternoon tours and to initiate the annual school tours.  The goal was to tell the story of the local Miami Indians in the authentic setting of the Chiefs' House.

In the early 1980s, The Heritage Guild was created.  Its members coordinated and staffed the school tours which became the culminating field trip in Indiana history for the county's fourth graders.

Also in the early 1980s, Jim and Carol Shuttleworth donated the Nuck Log House to Historic Forks.  Interpretation of Indiana pioneer life now was possible, thus rounding out the story of life at the Forks in 1800s.

It became evident that the future of Historic Forks would not be secure until the property was held and managed by a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and interpreting the site.  In  June 1987, Historic Forks of the Wabash, Inc., was formed, and it bought the Chiefs' House and 1.5 acres from Luke and Erma Scheer.  In 1990, Historic Forks purchased another seven acres across US 24 on the Wabash River.  This property included a farm market building which became the Forks Visitors’ Center.

In the early 1990s, the 15 acres between the seven-acre parcel and Rangeline Road were donated by Mr. and Mrs. William Shriner.  This parcel not only protects the site and provides for expansion, but it also contains a clearly visible portion of the Wabash and Erie Canal, including the site of a lock.  In the following years, Historic Forks gained title to additional land: five acres on the south side of the Wabash River, which was the site of an 1840s trading post and payment grounds; a 12 acre parcel on the southeast corner of US 24 and Indiana 9; and the 40 acre parcel which makes the point where the Wabash and Little Rivers join.

For decades there had been proposals to widen US 24, which passed directly in front of the Chiefs’ House.  In 1992, when the plans were being finalized, the Board of Historic Forks realized that the widened road would pass only a few feet from the corner of the Chiefs’ House and that it would be very difficult to manage an historic site on both sides of a busy highway.  After negotiations with the State, the Chiefs' and Nuck Houses were moved to the property on the south side of US 24.  The Chiefs’ House was allowed to retain its Historic Structures designation, a very important consideration, since only structures on their original sites are normally granted this honor.  The Historic Park was officially opened to the public in June 1994.  The highway expansion was completed in 2000.

Two more buildings were moved onsite in the 1990s. The Pioneer Schoolhouse is an authentic log building, though it was not originally a school.  Its squared logs came from an 1870s house built in the northern part of the county.  The rest of the building was constructed in place.  The second structure, a log building which was formerly located on Waterworks Raod, near Highway 5 and also dates from the 1870s, was moved to the property and stabilized by the Huntington County Junior Historical Society.  It is not currently used, pending a study of how it can best contribute to the program at Forks.

In 1994, Historic Forks hired its first paid Executive Director, Walt Dubbeld.  Jeannie Regan followed, serving until 2000.  She was succeeded by Chuck Backus, who left in 2001.  Last spring, Marie Harrell was hired as our part-time, but first-rate, office manager.

The history of Historic Forks of the Wabash is the story of a very dedicated group of people who recognized the value of the site to this community and who devoted their skills, energy and money to assuring its preservation.  Thanks to them, the story of Historic Forks will continue to be told to generations to come.

 

 
     
 Historic Forks of the Wabash
 
P.O. Box 261
 Huntington, IN 46750
 (260) 356-1903
 
info@historicforks.com 

 

  Mission Statement
Historic Forks of the Wabash, Inc., pledges to preserve, protect, enhance and interpret the geographical area known as the Forks of the Wabash. Historic Forks will serve the community by providing visitors with meaningful information about the site and the cultural history it represents.