By JEANNIE WILEY WOLF
BLUFFTON — Christian and Barbara Schumacher built their sturdy, two-story wooden home a few miles west of Bluffton after immigrating from Switzerland in 1843.
More than 160 years later, the homestead at 8350 Bixel Road has been renovated by the Bluffton-Pandora Swiss Community Historical Society, and visitors can see what life would have been like for the family.
“It’s a wonderful place to sit and read a book,” said Gary Wetherill, president of the society. “It’s peaceful. There’s always a nice breeze on the porch. Often when I come out to do weed trimming or whatever, I bring a book and I reward myself with a half hour or 45 minutes on the porch just reading.”
The historical society was founded in the 1950s to honor and preserve the heritage of the Bluffton-Pandora community and later acquired the homestead on the banks of the Riley Creek in 1968. Originally a museum, restoration begun in 2005 resulted in a complete remodel of the house to its original look, said Wetherill.
The house, garden, summer kitchen and workshop are open to the public for self-guided or docent-led tours from 1-5 p.m. every Saturday this summer. The farm’s bank barn is open the last Saturday of each month.
Joanne Niswander is in charge of the 20-24 people who serve as docents. As part of their training, each docent learns the history of the homestead.
The area became a Swiss settlement and included both Swiss Reformed, who located in the southern part of the area, and Swiss Mennonites who settled in the northern part, mostly in Putnam County.
The first Swiss Mennonites to settle there were Michael Neuenschwander and his family, who migrated to northern Wayne County from the Swiss Jura in 1823 and then built a farm along present-day Bixel Road in 1833. Numerous other Swiss Mennonites who moved there from the Wayne County settlement or directly from Switzerland and France soon joined the Neuenschwander family, including the Schumachers.
According to information provided on the society’s website, Christian and Barbara Elizabeth (Luginbuhl) Schumacher left a farm outside of Basel, Switzerland, in 1835 and came first to Wayne County, Ohio, to visit relatives. With their four children, they moved on to what was then Putnam County in 1836 and located on what is today known as the Old Schumacher Homestead.
A log house on the property provided a home for the family for the first several years, said Niswander. In 1843, a three-bay, timber-frame house was built under Christian Schumacher’s direction using local materials. The inside walls were insulated using mud and straw. The cellar features stone quarried from the nearby creek.
“It was a large house for four people at that time,” said Niswander. “The next generation of Schumachers had 16 children, so they needed that big house.”
In 1839, Peter Schumacher married Elizabeth Suter. They raised 16 children at the Schumacher farm; each grew to adulthood, married, and had an average of 10 children, giving Christian and Barbara 163 grandchildren.
The home passed through generations of Schumachers and other families and finally went to renters until it was purchased by the historical society. Niswander said the society originally used half of the house as a museum. The other half was made into an apartment for married college students who worked as caretakers.
Creating a living museum
In about 2000, Wetherill said the board made the decision to restore the homestead to what it was thought to look like between 1843 and 1860.
“And they really didn’t know what it looked like until they started tearing it apart, and then they found out,” said Niswander. “So it was interesting to see how ideas developed as they took things apart and put things back together.”
Wetherill said an early picture of the home taken from a distance shows it was once surrounded by a picket fence. The house is painted white with dark green trim.
Board members Seth Bixel and Jeff Althaus took charge of the restoration. Bixel’s great-great-grandfather was Abraham Bixel, who married Magdalene Schumacher, one of Peter and Elizabeth Schumacher’s 16 children.
The renovation involved moving interior walls and the stairways to the second floor and basement back to their original locations, as well as rebuilding the fireplace and chimneys and the entire back porch.
The house features a long hall from the front to the back door with a parlor and kitchen on either side. The parlor at one time contained a second room called the grandmother’s room, which was used by Mrs. Schumacher, Wetherill explained.
“It had enough room for a bed and dresser, but we decided we wanted it one larger room,” he said.
There is also a large desk in the parlor that is original to the house, said Niswander.
“Most of the pieces are original to the area and to the time, but this actually belonged to the Schumachers,” she said.
The floor and ceiling in the parlor are also original.
“The floor in the kitchen and hall is not original because the kitchen is where you had most of the use,” Niswander said. “The parlor, you didn’t have 16 children running around the parlor. They were either outside or in the kitchen.”
There are four rooms upstairs, all of which would have been bedrooms. However, one room has been outfitted as a fiber room with a spinning wheel and quilt rack.
An upper-story front porch was also replaced on the house.
“We thought it had been slanted with an airing porch, just to bring the bedding out to air. But during the renovation we found evidence of beams coming out up top,” said Wetherill. “They think at some point this porch blew off in a storm. So we put it back on.”
There is also a full attic.
“When we got the house, there was a missing beam,” Wetherill said. “You could stand up there and push the roof up and down. The story is, during one of the really bitter winters, they ran out of wood and they took the beam out for firewood until they could get back into the woods, and then never got around to putting it back.”
He said a board member researched weather conditions for the time period and found it was indeed a bitter winter.
A rocking chair in one of the bedrooms belonged to Elizabeth Schumacher, who died in 1891. The chair was passed down through the family until 1974, when it was given to the historical society by her great-granddaughter.
The homestead also includes a kitchen garden that would have contained herbs and quick things to pull in for the kitchen, an outside bake oven, drying shed, smokehouse and outhouse that was renovated two years ago as an Eagle Scout project. Wetherill said the smokehouse is due to be renovated this summer, also as an Eagle project.
Visitors can also tour the carriage house and workshop, which has a treadle lathe and schnitzelbank — a bench that was used to shave down wooden pieces for items like ax handles.
“Kids love this,” said Wetherill. “We give them a chance to sit down here and give it a try. They’ll shave these sticks down to toothpicks if we let them.”
Summer kitchen rebuilt
A new summer kitchen was built on the foundation of the original with an extra-large fireplace for cooking. This building was used during the summer months to keep the house cool.
“We had the building for a long time, but it was just beyond repair,” said Wetherill.
The motto, “An Gottes Segen ist alles gelegen,” or “Everything Depends on God’s Blessing,” is painted on a wooden board hanging above the fireplace mantel. The sign was originally on the east side of the barn, Wetherill said.
The barn, built in 1854 by Peter Schumacher, belonged to another farmer until 2004, when it was purchased by the society. It’s one of the few remaining “bank barns” once common in the Swiss settlement, said Wetherill. The barn features a post and beam construction with hand-hewn timbers and wooden pegs instead of nails. In its earliest days, the barn had banks on the west and east sides. These were later removed in favor of just one bank on the south side.
“So our goal is to someday put the banks back where they were and do some barn restoration,” he said.
A tour of the homestead takes about an hour, said Niswander.
Susie Gratz, who became a docent a few years ago after retiring from teaching, said she enjoys spending time at the homestead.
“I love being out here. I always have,” she said. “It’s peaceful and you kind of feel a connection to all these people just by being here.”
Annual events include a fall festival in late September with house and barn tours, wagon rides, children’s activities, petting zoo, demonstrations, exhibits and food; and a Christmas open house in December. Swiss Day, the society’s annual business meeting, is held at a Bluffton church in late June.
Looking toward the future, Wetherill said the society is working on a capital campaign to create a heritage center at the site which would provide display space for the society’s large collection of historical objects, early clothing and textiles, photographs, documents and genealogical records. He also hopes to start a junior docent program.
Admission to the homestead is $5 per person, with current members of the society and children 16 and younger admitted free. Private tours can be arranged for small or large groups by calling Niswander at 419-358-0186. Membership in the society is $30 a year and is open to anyone interested in history.
Send an E-mail to Jeannie Wolf