Although it’s been bypassed by the interstate, Indiana State Highway 3 still provides a scenic route through the countryside of northeastern Indiana. I’d become acquainted with the road from trips to visit family during my childhood, but it took constant weekend drives back home to Muncie from my Fort Wayne apartment to become intimate with it. Without question, the highway’s most prominent landmark is the Blackford County Courthouse in Hartford City, and I eventually started to wonder how such an impressive courthouse wound up in a county seat that seemed, well, so pathetic in contrast.
Well, there’s a story there. Although Blackford County was founded in 1837, it didn’t realllllllly exist until the following year when a state house resolution passed, officially authorizing its creation1. Choosing a county seat wouldn’t be as straightforward as a simple legislative proclamation, though- it never was in Indiana! A cutthroat political skirmish soon erupted between the residents of centrally-located Hartford and its rival Montpelier. Although Montpelier’s establishment predated the founding of the county by nearly a year, commissioners repeatedly selected Hartford as the county seat. But even that wasn’t enough: it took four acts by the Indiana General Assembly to finalize Hartford’s place of prominence. Soon, the name was changed to ‘Hartford City’ once leaders found out about another Hartford in the state2, and that was that.
Growth was lean in the early years, although a modest brick courthouse was constructed in 18433. Back then, the area was mostly just acres upon acres of swamp and forest, and it would all have to go to provide space for suitable development. As you can imagine, that took a while. But as luck would have it, both Hartford City and Montpelier were located smack-dab between the prominent cities of Muncie and Fort Wayne (as I would find out on my own drives later), and plans were soon made to build a railroad to connect the two in order to jump-start progress. It ended up taking more than twenty years to complete the Fort Wayne, Cincinnati, & Louisville Railroad4, and growth still wasn’t what you might call incendiary. But then something unexpected happened that shook up the entire region.
In 1876, a group of backwoods entrepreneurs in nearby Eaton were earnestly boring a hole in a search for some coal to mine. They got as deep as 600 feet down when, shockingly, a screeching noise and horrific odor erupted from the pipe! Absolutely certain that they’d breached the ceilings of Hell, the miners quickly plugged everything up and scattered, vowing never to drill in that location again.
Now, I’ve been to Eaton several times. It’s definitely hellish, and horrific fragrances and shrieks aren’t uncommon around town. I don’t fault those mistaken miners, but when natural gas was discovered across the border in Ohio a few years later, they all knew what the Eaton incident had really meant years earlier- they’d hit gas. The well was re-opened, more were drilled, and the Indiana Gas Boom was underway.
The gas boom spread across the county line and although prospectors in Blackford County took their sweet time, they finally struck oil just south of Montpelier5 in 1890. Incredibly, the sleepy county with only 8,020 residents sat above the center of the 5,120-square-mile Trenton Gas Field! The field contained more than a trillion cubic feet of natural gas and another billion barrels of oil. Naturally, industry jumped on this development, and Blackford County was well-positioned (no pun intended) to capitalize on it. Glass manufacturers in need of cheap power and heat moved in right away, and gas companies sprung up in nearly every town in the county.
Growth had finally picked up! For proof, look no further than the numbers: in 1880 the county only had 171 people working in the manufacturing sector. By 1901 though, 1,346 were employed and making things. That’s seven times more workers in only two decades. Hartford City’s population went up too. Per the census, only 1,470 people made their homes in the sleepy county seat by 1880. However, the influx of manufacturers rocketed it up to nearly 6,000 at the close of the century. That’s a 214% increase! We talked about the phenomenal recent growth of Hamilton County this past week, but Gas-Boom-Era Blackford County would have been right there with it.
County officials knew that a certain responsibility came with being located in the middle of a gas field the size of Connecticut, and they set out to prove that Hartford City could stand head-to-head with the other gas boom county seats. So they set out to build the grandest courthouse in the area, and may have succeeded. Finished in 1894 as the county’s second courthouse, the sandstone building dominates the city square by rising three stories, not counting the pairs of semicircular turrets on its east and west sides, or the 165-foot-tall clock tower. The building’s architects, LaBelle & French, designed the building in the popular Richardson Romanesque style that epitomized the sense of permanency that officials believed would embody the county’s economic successes for years to come.
Well, a quick drive through the area today demonstrates that they were very wrong. Soon, the boom abruptly began to show signs of stopping, despite repeated attempts of state legislators to regulate the gas field’s use. By 1902, nearly 90% of the gas had been squandered. The field was interconnected, and a new well in Muncie caused the pressure in Hartford City, Montepelier, or anywhere else to decrease. It didn’t help that new wells were commonly lit at the top in order to produce a constant flame that defiantly demonstrated that the gas was still flowing. These continuously-burning flares, called ‘flambeaus,’ were common practice and heralded as tourist attractions. They were also ridiculously wasteful.
Don’t get me wrong- I’m all for hubristic, excessive displays of grandeur (I think that’s why I like these historic courthouses so much). But allowing those flambeaus to burn for twenty straight years was probably a bad idea. By the turn of the century, the displays had become noticeably weaker6, and they began to peter out as the gas supply was exhausted. Blackford County petered out too- once that gas was gone, businesses didn’t have a whole lot of reason to stay. So they closed up shop or moved out entirely, with only a few exceptions.
And that’s how we find ourselves here today. About a hundred and fifteen years later, there aren’t a lot of relics from the gas boom left in Blackford County. Hartford City and Montpelier are still there, but they’re the only cities left. Roll, Trenton, and Millgrove -former boomtowns all- exist in name only now, drying up soon after the gas field did.
But even though we don’t have geographical reminders of the era, we still have architectural ones. The Blackford County Courthouse still towers incongruously above Hartford City’s downtown. Whether seen up close, in passing, or from afar, the building serves to remind us all of an aspirational time in our state’s history. To me, it even represents a little bit more. Since it was the first courthouse I went to on my project to document all of them, it brings to mind an aspirational time in my own life.
But the courthouse isn’t the only remaining memento of the gas boom. Today, 90% of the oil -900 million barrels– is thought to still slush around underneath Hartford City! But we’re probably not going to see much of it anytime soon. Unfortunately, the field’s too big to pump gas back in to increase the pressure7 enough to extract the remaining oil, and as of this writing, artificial lift technology isn’t an economically viable option to remove it either. But maybe some petrochemical engineer in Eaton is on the verge of a discovery that can restore the county’s prosperity just like his forebears. Hopefully, though, he’ll have the presence of mind to bring his discovery to Blackford County before he seals it up in fear of having breached Hell’s infernal laboratory. I guess we’ll see!
Blackford County (pop. 309,697, 85/92)
Hartford City (pop. 12,298).
Cost: $129,337 ($3.72 million in 2016)
Architect: Labelle & French
Style: Richardson Romanesque
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 165 feet
Current Use: County offices and courts
1 Indiana State House of Representatives. “Journal of the House of Representatives of the State of Indiana during the Twenty-Second Session of the General Assembly”. Indianapolis. Bolton and Livingston. 1837. Print.
2 Biographical and Historical Record of Jay and Blackford Counties, Indiana. Chicago. The Lewis Company. 1887. Print.
3 Enyart, David. “Blackford County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. March 30, 2018.
4 A History of Blackford County, Indiana, 1838-1986. Hartford City, Indiana. Blackford County Historic Society. 1986. Print.
5 “Annual Report” Indianpolis Indiana Department of Geology and Natural Resources. 1897. Print.
6 Glass, J. & Kohrman, David. The Gas Boom of East Central Indiana. Charleston. Arcadia Publishing. 2005. Print.
7 “Natural Gas Lies Beneath Carwash”. The Star Press [Muncie]. December 27, 2005. Print.