1920-1929: THE ROARING 20s

Roads made smooth from town to town

Road obstacles
Road obstacles
Muddy roads around Allen County were impassable to automobiles for weeks at a time early in the century. The 20s introduced an era where more and more roads became paved for easier travel. Photo courtesy of Allen County-Fort Wayne Historical Society
By CONNIE HAAS ZUBER of The News-Sentinel

The open highway came to Fort Wayne in 1915 with the nation's first coast-to-coast paved road -- the Lincoln Highway.

As that first ribbon of smooth pavement grew into a network of roads connecting town to town across the continent in the 1920s, life in those towns changed dramatically.

The 1920s was a decade of growth for Fort Wayne. It was a decade of loss for nearby smaller towns, such as Harlan, that lost their franchises as market centers for the surrounding countryside.

At the same time, car ownership was growing quickly. Before World War I, only the wealthy could afford cars, and they traveled over rutted, muddy roads carrying tools and extra wheels and tires, in addition to cans of gasoline. Farmers often pulled the cars loose from mud with teams of horses.

After World War I, times were good, and soon nearly every middle-class family had paid about $300 for one of Henry Ford's Model T's. By the mid-'20s, paved roads not only gave them places to go, but the thrill of speedy travel down smooth pavement. Suddenly, they could spend a day shopping in Fort Wayne as easily as they used to do their business in small towns such as Harlan.

The story of one of Harlan's stately homes, the castlelike Queen Anne Romanesque mansion at 11928 Water St., illustrates the change.

Granville A. Reeder, the town's pharmacist and vice president of the Harlan State Bank, and his wife, Laura, bought the land in 1905. When they watched the masons and tile workers build their dream house, it would have been difficult for them to believe how soon Harlan's future was going to change.

The home's grandeur seems misplaced in the quiet Harlan of today, a town of modest homes and a few small businesses and industries. Its current owners, Milo and Deborah Felger, are nearly finished with its historically accurate restoration.

"We're preservationists at heart," Milo Felger said.

But when the Reeders built it, Harlan was every bit as grand as their dream house. Harlan had been a vital town since the 1860s. It provided a commercial center for an area about the size of a township, said Dr. Clifford Scott, associate professor of history at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.

According to the Harlan Commemorative 1953 Centennial booklet, Harlan was a thriving town by 1915. The town boasted all the usual shops and markets, as well as a furniture store, meat-packing company, pool room and a funeral home, among other businesses.

The town even hosted a chautauqua, an educational and recreational assembly, for an entire week each summer, Scott said. All the businesses would close so the townspeople could attend the lectures and performances.

The Reeders probably hoped to take their place in Harlan history with their palatial home. No other home in Harlan is as substantial as the concrete-cast stone mini-castle, complete with round tower and red tile roof. Stained-glass windows were installed in the living room, two bedrooms, the dining room and stairwell, and over the front door.

In some ways, the Reeders' castle did make them a part of Harlan history. Harlan High School's senior class pictures were always taken in front of it, said Linda Duncan-Lark, who owned the home from 1965 to 1985. The town's photographer also used the home's interior to take portraits of people posing in the tower, flanked by two huge ferns.

By the 1920s, however, the times that looked so good were about to change, because of the automobile.

Reeder died in 1924, one year before the Indiana state highway department paved Ridge Road (now Indiana 37) from Harlan to Fort Wayne with concrete. Scott said the concrete road cut travel time in half, and made the trip more comfortable and easier.

"The smoothness of the road would have been a sensation most people had never experienced. It would have been almost a racetrack for them," he said.

So Harlan, with all its businesses and with enough pride and interest to sponsor a chautauqua each summer, was suddenly unable to support itself in a grand style.

Its grandest home has survived only because its owners understand its historical importance.

Now, Harlan's restaurants are busy at lunchtime. Traffic is brisk along Indiana 37, and three new subdivisions are filling with homes. The mobility that hurt the town in the '20s now allows people -- such as Milo Felger, who works in Woodburn -- to live in Harlan because they enjoy what the town has to offer.

The Felgers were living in Roanoke and had been hunting for a historic home to restore when they bought the Reeder home in 1993.

"The home is the only existing witness to the large industrial base that flourished in Harlan," Felger said. "It represents the heritage of the community."

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