One of my favorite stops on my 2008 Michigan Road trips was Napoleon, a little town in Ripley County, Indiana. A grand old home stands where the road intersects with Wilson St. there, and when I photographed it I wondered about its history.
The home’s owner saw this photo in my trip writeup and e-mailed me to fill in some details. The house was built in 1822 by Elias Conwell. I’m not aware of any houses older than this on the Michigan Road! It was restored several years ago to its 1820s appearance; it has eight working fireplaces. It’s was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.
I did a little research on Mr. Conwell. He was born in Delaware in about 1789 but moved to Aurora, Indiana, in 1819. There he was a postmaster and a businessman, opening Aurora’s first store. It’s not clear when he made his Napoleon home his primary residence, as his dealings in Aurora continued through at least the 1820s. Those dealings sometimes landed him in court. In 1823, he was convicted of assaulting another prominent Aurora businessman named Horace Bassett, for which the penalty was a $2 fine plus court costs. He was also sued in Aurora in 1825, accused of taking unlawful possession of a building belonging to someone named Luke Erill. He lost, but records available to me don’t indicate the penalty.
Despite Conwell’s rascally ways, a street in Aurora is named for him. It seems fitting if nothing else because he was involved in roadbuilding, forming the Sparta and Napoleon Turnpike Company in 1851 with six other men. Sparta is an unincorporated town about nine miles northwest of Aurora on what is now State Road 350. The road was to pass through Milan and Prattsburg (which doesn’t appear to exist anymore) on its way to Napoleon. It looks like the road may have been built; I’m able to trace a likely route among these towns, starting on State Road 350 in Sparta, following some county roads (and places where those roads clearly used to go but which no longer exist), and ending on State Road 229 in Napoleon.
Conwell died in Napoleon in 1862. He was 73.
There’s plenty of interesting history along the Michigan Road. I’m part of a team that’s working to have it named an Indiana Historic Byway. For more information, see our Web site.