Jack Overmyer's Courthouse Address

Rochester Sesquicentennial Celebration

AUGUST 1, 2003



If you’re to understand the history of Rochester, you need understand only two things, for everything else in its existence flows from them --- Lake Manitou and the Michigan Road.

First is the lake, only in the beginning it was not a lake, but five separate ponds separated by marshes. It became a lake in 1827 when the federal government built a dam near the present one. In time this flooded the areas surrounding the ponds and provided water power for a corn-cracking mill. The feds had promised the mill, among other things, to the indigenous Indians in return for them giving up their rights to the land. They were the Potawatomis, who had wandered into the area in the early part of the 18th century.

Indiana had become a state in 1816, was being rapidly settled from the south, and by this time people were anxious to get into the unsettled north.

Well, the Indian mill attracted a miller, of course, along with a blacksmith and a trader in a little settlement around the mill called Tiptonville, after the name of this region’s Indian agent. These men didn’t stay permanently and are not counted as the first settlers. Those arrived in 1830 and the first one to locate within the boundaries of present Rochester was James Elliott.

Elliott likely knew what he was doing when he built a cabin on a site that’s now the northwest corner of Eighth and Franklin Streets. The Michigan Road was coming here soon and was going to pass near Lake Manitou.

The Michigan Road was conceived in 1826 by the state as a trade route from the Ohio River at Madison to Lake Michigan. It also would open the wilderness of northern Indiana to settlement.

From Indianapolis north, the road extended to Logansport, then to South Bend and west to Michigan City. The South Bend route was a fortunate one for Rochester, because otherwise the road would have bypassed it to the west as the most direct route to Lake Michigan. The Kankakee swamps were a deterrent to that route, but other opposition came from a vigorous lobbying effort by South Benders to choose its way.

In 1831, the year after James Elliott built his cabin here, the stretch of the road passing through Rochester’s site was surveyed. Within another year or two it enabled settlers to begin arriving steadily in these parts, attracted by the cheap and rich land. They were undaunted by the road that was little more than a path and often disappeared in marshes or running streams.

Some of these hardy folk began concentrating in Rochester, then but a rude Indian trading post. They were attracted here by the proximity of the lake, by the location a good day’s ride from Logansport and by the likelihood that it would become a county seat, as in fact it did.

Now you know how Rochester came to be. I need only tell you something about those who first settled it.

To do that I shall describe Alexander Chamberlain. We call him our city’s founder because he was the first, by a month, to have building lots surveyed here. He is a stirring example of the industrious, determined men who settled Indiana’s frontiers. His colorful personality and the astonishing events of his life make him perfect for the role of city founder.

Chamberlain was born in New York State in 1788, the year before George Washington became president. Some say his birthplace was near Ithaca, others say near Albany. In any event, he was thrown into the workforce as a boy and had to support himself without any formal education, traveling from job to job through the state.

When the United States went to war with Great Britain in 1812, Chamberlain was in Canada, but he returned and joined the U. S. Army as an infantryman. He saw action in several battles and at the major battle of Lundy’s Lane near Niagara Falls in 1814 he was captured.

How he escaped is the stuff of fiction. He was ordered by his guard to chop wood and then to carry it back to the barracks. He picked up the wood with his left arm, holding a stick of it in his right. When he saw his chance, he whacked the guard on the head, ran off and dived into the Niagara River, swimming to the U. S. side safely despite a hail of bullets.

Chamberlain soon after took a wife and set off to seek his fortune in the new state of Indiana. He settled first in Terre Haute but in 1824 moved to Logansport. Two years later he became the first permanent settler there, building a cabin on the south side of the Wabash River at the mouth of the Eel. He later erected Logansport’s first tavern and hotel.

We don’t know why he tired of Logansport, but in late 1834 he packed up his goods and headed north on the Michigan Road, stopping at the collection of huts and cabins that would become Rochester.

Alexander built his first cabin on the banks of Mill Creek at the north end of today’s city and then sized up the situation. He learned of the imminent creation of Fulton County and bet that Rochester would become its county seat.

So, in July of 1835 he was the first local developer to have town lots surveyed. When in the next year Fulton County was organized and Rochester chosen as its county seat, Chamberlain had won his bet and his future.

Alexander soon after built the National House, the first hotel-tavern here, at Main and Third Street. He had other commercial ventures in the north end, among them the first sawmill-gristmill, east of Main along the present railroad. He died at the age of 81 in 1869, mourned, a contemporary wrote, as “a creature of nature in its truest sense.” His descendants continued here for the next 100 years.

And so you now know Rochester’s most important beginnings as I interpret them. The rest of its history I must summarize.

By 1838, three years after Rochester’s founding, the majority of the Potawatomi Indians were removed, leaving Rochester and Fulton County wide open for settlement.

That came rather rapidly. By 1853 a brick courthouse had been built, the county population had reached 6,000, Rochester had nearly 1,500 inhabitants and clearly it was time for the county seat to be managed by its own government. Male citizens were asked in July to approve and did so by a 35-24 margin. By September the first town officers were elected and Rochester had a secure future.

We became a city in 1910, by which time the population was 3,421. Since that time we’ve had 17 different mayors, one of them a woman --- Nellie Babcock, appointed to complete the term of her deceased husband in 1938.

In 1987 the heavily-populated Lake Manitou residential community was annexed to the city --- about 30 years too late, in my view. And with that, by the last census our population had grown to 6,414. And still growing, to be sure.

There’s much more I could say about this city in which I was born and which I love so much. Its unique history as the home of a world-class circus. The glorious decades when Lake Manitou was famous as a resort and dance entertainment center. The way it responded to and rebounded from the vicious tornado of 1974. Its selection twice as an outstanding city for its achievements and lifestyle, in 1936 by the national magazine Fortune and again in 1998 by the Indiana State Chamber of Commerce.

There’s a lot more --- I’ve written about much of it --- but now I leave you with one more personal thought.

The reason we have come as far as 168 years in this place is because of the nature of all its inhabitants, who have cared so much for it and for those with whom they have shared it. I am certain that future inhabitants will be no different.

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