The House that James built

from the archives of The News-Sentinel

This is the story of the house that James Barnett built.

Barnett was a prominent businessman in Fort Wayne's early years but has since slipped quietly into oblivion. The house he built on Columbia Street in 1824 has been forgotten, too, but it deserves a better fate.

The simple, two-story house was the first brick building built in Fort Wayne.

Judging from old photographs, the city's first brick building wasn't much to look at. And there's not much known about the house, except that is was located on Columbia just east of Clinton Street. Barnett apparently lived there for 60 years, but during the building's last years it housed Schwieter's Bakery.

The bricks for the house were made locally, in the kiln of Judge Benjamin Archer, one of the earliest residents of Washington Township. Archer brick was used to construct most of the early brick buildings in Fort Wayne.

The house came down in 1909.

And that, really, is just about all that is known about the Barnett house. But the life of the man who built it probably deserves some attention as well.

Fort Wayne historian B.J. Griswold reports that Barnett was born in Pennsylvania in 1785 and came to Fort Wayne when it still really was a fort.

He arrived here as a captain in Gen. William Henry Harrison's army in 1818. Barnett and Harrison apparently had a falling out soon after, though, and Barnett worked hard many years later in an unsuccessful attempt to keep Harrison out of the White House. Griswold doesn't say for sure, but Barnett's brick house may have been built as a present for his new bridge. In 1824 - the same year as the house was built - Barnett married Nancy Hanna, the sister of another of Fort Wayne's founders, Judge Sam Hanna.

Sam Hanna and Barnett then became partners in a trading post, and in 1827 they opened the first grist mill in Fort Wayne. The mill was located on the west bank of the St. Mary's River just south of the Broadway bridge.

Barnett was elected the city's first marshal in 1829, earning the lofty salary of $2 a year for his services. He also helped found the First Presbyterian Church, helped form the Fort Wayne Fire Department in 1933, and was elected a township trustee in 1834.

Griswold doesn't say how Barnett met his end, but the historian leaves little doubt that Barnett was no fool.

In 1849, Fort Wayne residents became obsessed with worry over the possible outbreak of cholera, which was then plaguing other areas of the country.

Barnett donated a log house at the corner of Calhoun and Berry for use as a hospital. The hospital must have been well used; 200 Fort Wayne residents died of cholera between 1849 and 1854.

But Barnett was apparently not among them. He and his family moved north to Leo to avoid the epidemic.

--Oct. 31, 1981

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