Recapturing Madison's Industrial Past

Schroeder Saddle Tree site a "time capsure"


MADISON, Ind. – Quietly, they work in near obscurity, partially hidden by trees from the buzz of 20th Century highway traffic rushing by a few hundred yards away.
They work to restore a piece of Madison's industrial past – a time when people traveled by horse and buggy, railroad or steamboat.

Saddle Tree Work

Photo by Don Ward

Workers from an Ohio
restoration company
work to stabilize
the foundation of the
bench/blacksmith shop
as part of Phase I
of the ambitious project.

What these men from an Ohio restoration company are doing, it is hoped by local historians, will soon open a window into Madison's industrial heritage – back to the time when the Ben Schroeder Saddle Tree Co. operated at the foot of the Michigan Hill in the heart of Madison.
The family-run business, which operated from 1878 to 1972, employed a handful of men and women who made the interior wooden frames for saddle makers throughout the United States and Latin America.
At one time, 13 saddletree factories existed in Madison alone. Saddletrees poured out by steamboat and rail to all corners of the country. Buyers included clients in Cincinnati and Louisville, Ky. that made saddles for large saddlery companies and the U.S. Army.
Schroeder's was the nation's longest-running, continually operating 19th Century saddletree factory. Perhaps amazingly, it is the only one that still exists in the country.
What's even more remarkable, it has survived the years nearly intact, complete with tools, machinery and work stations.
When the Schroeder Foundation donated the site to Historic Madison Inc. in 1975, HMI members discovered a virtual time capsule of late 19th Century industrial life and culture. This, despite the fact the last surviving family member, Joseph Schroeder, lived in the house until his death in 1972.
"When we came in here, it was just as if the Schroeder family had just walked out the door yesterday – right down to the sawdust on the floor," said John Staicer, 38, a Valley Stream, N.Y., native hired in 1991 by Historic Madison to direct the $970,000 restoration project.
About 80 percent of the money is coming from state funds. In addition to local donations, private support has come from the Lilly Endowment (Indianapolis), the Ogle Foundation (Jeffersonville, Ind.), the Horn Foundation (Louisville, Ky.) and the Cinergy Foundation (Cincinnati).
Staicer says the project has attracted widespread financial support because of its historical significance.
"We have the entire family collection, including the tools and machines – many unique to this type of business – plus records, billets and documents the family kept. The only thing we don't have are the Schroeders."
Like many Depression-era families, the Schroeders were pack-rats, Staicer said. "They were good business people and kept everything. And they recycled things.
"They left a legacy that's not written in documents," he said. "It's a very evocative thing. I think that's the true attraction of this place."
Since his arrival, Staicer has directed nearly 70 volunteers, interns and students from several Indiana colleges in the meticulous task of collecting, identifying, cataloging and storing the thousands of items from the Schroeder factory and residence. Some will be displayed in the museum when it opens sometime next year.
The museum will feature demonstrations, tours, exhibits and special programs. It will also serve as an educational center for both school groups and researchers.
The word is out
Already, the project has garnered attention from national historians and horse enthusiasts. Last year, 150 members from the National Trust for Historic Preservation traveled to Madison via the Delta Queen steamboat and toured the site. They're coming back again this year.
And the Kentucky Horse Park's International Museum of the Horse in Lexington, Ky., has posted an Internet website about the saddletree factory. A traveling exhibit on the project was on display at the park last year.
"For an archeologist or historian, it's like a miner hitting the jackpot," said Frank McKelvey, a museum consultant for the past 10 years based in Wilmington, Del. "It might not be gold, but it provides a rare glimpse of America's industrial history. And only a dozen places like that still exist in our country."
McKelvey cited other examples of industrial survivors, such as the Buggy Museum in Mifflinburg, Pa.; the Keystone Foundry (maker of mine car parts) in Bedford County, Pa.; and the Hagley Museum, the DuPont Company's first gunpowder factory in Wilmington, Del.
McKelvey, the Hagley Museum's former curator, was the guest speaker last year at Historic Madison's spring dinner. During his visit to Madison, he toured the Schroeder saddletree factory.
"It's so esoteric," he said. "Like most 19th Century factories, it employed average people making parts for various industries to help make life better. When you go there, you get a sense that these people were part of the community."
McKelvey added that such places "can speak to you in so many ways about early American life, to say nothing about making saddletrees."
Perhaps not surprisingly, he is a staunch advocate for preserving America's early industrial sites, which he says are often overlooked by those wanting to restore old homes.
Jim Hutchins, a senior historian with the Smithsonian Institute's National Museum of American History, has not seen the Schroeder complex but is familiar with the project after having met with Staicer last year. Hutchins, who spent 31 years at Washington, D.C.-based museum until retiring in 1994, studies military and civilian equestrian riding equipment.
"It's remarkable that the factory has survived," Hutchins said. "Outside the railroad and the steamboat, horses are how people got around, and the saddletrees are the heart and soul of any saddle."
Hutchins said saddletree factories once existed in many part of the country, and in some cases, were made by prison labor.
Meticulous work
The work to restore the Schroeder Saddle Tree Co. factory to its original form, in some cases, is nearly as painstaking as the Schroeder's early craft of making saddletrees itself.
For instance, each board from the original floor of the bench/blacksmith shop has been removed and numbered. Once the building's foundation has been stablized, the boards will be replaced.
Small notes are tacked along the walls where certain tools were found hanging. Those tools, too, will be rehung.
Once the blacksmith shop is restored, perhaps sometime this summer, Phase II will involve restoring the next-door woodworking shop. The final phase, scheduled to begin next winter, will be restoring the house. The entire project is slated for completion by mid-2000.
"Everything is on schedule so far, but you never know what you're going to run into when you start digging into these old buildings," said Staicer, who, prior to his current post, worked at Hanford Mills, a historic water-powered mill and woodworking shop in East Meredith, N.Y.
Educated at the State University of New York, Staicer has photographed the site, written articles and college papers on it, and presented slide shows to area school and civic groups.
Staicer has also led many school groups through the site, and he plans to help develop the educational programs for the new museum. Such exhibits may include computer-interactive stations.
As far as tourism goes, officials at Historic Madison Inc. believe this newest attraction will generate interest from an entirely new crowd.
"We expect to see horse fanciers and folks who are into Western lore or industrial history," Staicer said. "We've already had visits from a national tool collectors association and other groups."
HMI officials are also hoping to establish an exhibit at the future Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis to help promote it.
For historians and horse enthusiasts, such promotion won't be necessary.
"You just have to look around Madison at all the great buildings that have been built and survived over the years because of the town's location on the river," McKelvey said. "And how did they come about? It's because of little shops like this.
"Madison is where it is and the way it is today because of these little industries that once thrived there."

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