It is impossible to discuss the history of Liberty Mills without mentioning the name John Comstock. The small town, situated at the very northeast corner of Wabash County, once had hopes of ri
valing North Manchester as both towns grew in the early 1830s. But while Liberty Mills had Comstock to thank for its success, the same man acted as a blockade for progress as time passed.
John Comstock, also known as Judge Comstock, was born in Rhode Island in 1792. When his mother passed, an adolescent Comstock was “bound out” as a servant to a wealthy family. However, Comstock’s time as a servant was short lived as he soon fled to New York where he continued his education and sought work as a school teacher. After marrying in 1826, Comstock’s keen business acumen led him to begin potato farming in New York. The growing Irish immigrant population had increased the demand for potatoes, and John filled the need with great success.
Flush with cash from farming and various other business ventures, Comstock took his profits to a land sale in Fort Wayne in 1835. After securing 80 acres of land in northeast Indiana, the Comstock family packed up and headed west. The area that would become Liberty Mills was originally sold to a man by the name of Alex McBride, under the condition that McBride would erect a gristmill, or grain mill, in the area. But by the arrival of the Comstocks in 1836, McBride had failed miserably at his promise and welcomed a way out. Seeing the investment opportunity, Comstock assumed all of McBride’s obligations with no hesitation.
However, Comstock’s ambition would not allow him to limit himself to building only a gristmill. Under Comstock’s leadership Liberty Mills quickly constructed a gristmill, sawmill, woolen mill, distillery, tannery, and various other enterprises and shops. Described as a “physical giant,” Comstock labored alongside his men in the construction of most of his operations, and at any given time he had 30-60 men under his direct supervision. The distillery and Comstock’s specialty cattle were among his most successful ventures. His distillery produced cheap and plentiful whiskey that was especially popular among Irish laborers working on the Wabash Erie Canal.* Always a man of efficiency, Comstock used the distillery’s by-products to feed his own prize winning cattle, and is single handedly responsible for starting thoroughbred Shorthorn cattle breeding in this area. Even through the end of his life, Comstock never abandoned his cattle farming.
To a passing observer, it appeared that Comstock was the king of Liberty Mills, but his authoritarian control over all business in the area ultimately squashed diversity and progress. This is best exemplified in the case of Liberty Mills’ dry goods stores. At one time, five separate stores existed and competed against one another for sales. Annoyed by any opposition, Comstock advertised that he would sell goods to farmers on credit of up to two years time–something other shop owners couldn’t afford to do. This tactic drove smaller businesses into the surrounding towns, and guaranteed new businesses would not open in Liberty Mills.
The Comstock empire began to crumble with the closing of the distillery. Comstock indulged more and more in his own supply, but was aware of the path he was headed toward. Reportedly, after being told to go home after drinking too much, Comstock exclaimed, “What! Me go home! I’m drunk and even my dogs would be ashamed of me.” Despite objections and offers to purchase the distillery, Comstock closed the business permanently. One by one the rest of Comstock’s businesses closed their doors or were sold off until the family farm and cattle business were the only enterprises left by 1869. Comstock’s methods of squeezing out the small business man had brought him wealth, but at the cost of Liberty Mills’ economic future. In September of 1879 Comstock passed, outliving three of his seven children and his beloved wife.
*See blog post Canals & Conflict: How Irish Immigrants Built and Battled on the Wabash & Erie Canal to learn more about the Irish immigrants in Wabash County.
Source: Online Access to Source: North Manchester Historical Society online archives