Putting a spin on history
With washing machines and more
John Claus Peters built the Romanesque/Queen Anne style house at 832 W. Wayne St. in 1885. Peters arrived in Fort Wayne shortly after the Civil War and with another newcomer to Fort Wayne, Henry C. Paul, co-founded the Horton Manufacturing Company in 1871. This company developed and produced the first contained washing machine and by 1924 manufactured half of the world’s washing machines.
Peters also owned and operated the Peters Box and Lumber Company and the Indiana Road Company. In 1887, he built the Wayne Hotel on West Columbia Street, then the finest hotel in the city. Historian Bert Griswold described it as “located on West Columbia Street between Calhoun and Harrison streets, one of the best-known places of entertainment in northern Indiana.” It was an impressive, four-story brick and stone structure, with gas lights, the city’s first hydraulic barber’s chair, an elevator and plush furnishings. The city’s first demonstration of the teletype machine took place here. On Oct. 21, 1896, the famed William Jennings Bryan spoke from its balcony. Over the years, former presidents such as Benjamin Harrison, James Garfield and Rutherford B. Hayes were guests.
The hotel changed hands, becoming the Jones Hotel in 1887. However, in 1975, a fire broke out in the upper stories that took two hours to contain. It was considered a total loss with $250,000 in damage, a little over $1 million in today’s dollars. Fortunately, all 35 of the hotel’s residents escaped without injury.
On another occasion, Peters joined with Paul in a major effort to drain the Great Marsh, known to some as the Portage Marsh. They in turn were joined by several other prominent land owners in a successful petition to Allen Superior Court for approval to drain the swampland. A remnant of an ancient glacier melt, it consumed some 25,000 acres of marshy land. Located southwest of Fort Wayne, it stretched over parts of Allen, Huntington and Whitley counties. It was an inaccessible wet grassland covered with vegetation surrounded by bogs.
Through this only land barrier between the Maumee and Wabash river systems flowed a sluggish stream known as the Little Wabash River. Eventually the Little River Drainage Company formed by Peters and Paul cut through mud and removed thousands of cubic yards of submerged rock. In the end, the great marsh between Fort Wayne and Huntington was opened. Newly formed ditches channeled water east to the St. Marys River and Wabash to the west. Once a limestone barrier that obstructed water flow was blasted out of existence near Huntington, the drainage project was declared completed.
Today, the old marsh has been reclaimed, and the nonprofit group Little River Wetlands Project, with its preserves and a conservation easement on private land, oversees 1,000 natural acres in the Little Wabash River valley.
Peters’ legacy extended through his son Fred Peters, who became an executive in the Horton Company and the father of a famous film star named Jane Alice Peters. Jane, born in 1908, later took the stage name Carole Lombard at the beginning of her career as a 1930s movie star.
It truly can be said that John Claus Peters put his mark on Fort Wayne and the Three Rivers region.
First appeared in the May 2017 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.