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•If you can contribute information about the Findlay Fort Wayne and Western Railroad, the building now next to Mercantile on Main at 1753 W. Main St. or Wm. H. Franke, call ARCH at 426-5117 or Mercantile on Main at 413-5028.
Photos by Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette
Bob Michel is restoring an early 1900s building that he and his wife had moved to property they own on West Main Street to be used as part of their Mercantile on Main business.

Restorer researches local building’s history

Building’s history unknown, but its future looks bright

The inside of the building, which is believed to have been associated with an old railroad, has original wood paneling.
Paint chips and old windows remain on a wood door on the side of the building.
Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette
The fancy woodwork is unusual for so small a building, Michel says.

With apologies to the late Winston Churchill, who was pondering much larger questions, it’s a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

At least that’s how Bob Michel of Fort Wayne views a scrap of wooden moulding found inside a wall in his latest restoration project.

Written in pencil are a name, “Wm. H. Franke,” and a date, Jan. 9, 1913. But who Franke was, or why the wood was left inside the building now standing in the 1700 block of West Main Street – well, as of yet, that’s anybody’s guess, Michel says.

And those questions, he says, are just the tip of an iceberg of queries raised by recent efforts to save the tiny structure, which, at about 14 by 21 feet, is smaller than many people’s living rooms.

Michael Galbraith, executive director of ARCH Inc., the local nonprofit historic architecture preservation group, says the building is believed to have been part of the Findlay Fort Wayne and Western Railroad, a short-lived private rail line that closed in the early 1900s.

But whether the structure was used as a depot, office or some sort of storage building – or perhaps all three during its lifetime – is still enigmatically unclear, he says.

What is clear, he says, is that the structure has a bit of a lucky streak.

Shortly before 1999, Galbraith says, ARCH learned the building was about to be torn down and placed it on its annual list of endangered historic structures. The group was able to acquire it and move it several hundred feet to a lot behind Big C Lumber Co. along the 2000 block of Wayne Trace.

“We were hoping we would find a quick and easy move to a better location,” Galbraith says. Instead, the structure idled for more than a decade, becoming more decrepit.

Then, in the past year, veteran restorer Michel, active in ARCH, came up with the idea of moving the structure to a lot he owned next to one of his recent restorations, a late Victorian house at 1753 W. Main St., now an art and antiques shop known as Mercantile on Main.

Michel and contractors also came up with the idea of stripping the building of its damaged roof, so the structure could be more easily transported. The building was so tall that traffic lights and utility lines would have had to be taken down before it could be moved, making the process logistically difficult and cost-prohibitive.

On Aug. 5, workers from Wolfe House and Building Movers in North Manchester used hydraulic jacks to lift the building and slide it onto a flatbed trailer, which carried it more than three miles through city streets to its current spot.

The process, including placement on its new foundation, took “less than a day,” Michel says, something at which he still marvels.

As he ushers a visitor inside under the newly replaced roof, Michel says it was the interior that captured his imagination, as well as the attention of ARCH.

“It has a bead-board ceiling and walls, and the walls have wooden corbels at the top,” he explains. The pedestal-like and comma-shaped carved Queen Anne details are sometimes seen on porches and roof lines on the outside of homes in older neighborhoods such as West Central.

But he says he’d never seen any in such a small interior.

“All the fancy work is on the inside,” he says. “Why it was built so fancy is an unknown to me, but maybe over the winter we’ll unravel that mystery.”

Another mystery, he says, is that workers uncovered not one, but two layers of wooden floor. There’s also a cabinet-like opening near what is now the front door, and he hasn’t been able to figure out what it might have been used for. Mail? Bills of lading? Time sheets? Lunch deliveries?

Currently, Michel says, the building’s walls are braced because they had gone seriously out of square, meaning the structure even recently could have fallen. It already survived one potential catastrophe, Michel says – a fire apparently damaged it at one point, making some of the siding mismatched and too damaged to reuse.

But he hopes to have some wooden components recreated by a specialty mill and to retain or recreate existing doors. He’s already found old-style concrete blocks that match those in foundations on many homes along West Main Street to keep that portion of the restoration looking authentic.

Michel says he and his wife, Pam, known for restoring antique lighting fixtures and now keeping shop at Mercantile on Main, will use the finished structure as an annex to that business. He hopes work will be mostly finished by the middle of next year.

Since the move, he says, area railroad buffs have come out of the woodwork, busily searching for details about the all-but-forgotten old railroad.

Also known as the Tangent Line, it was one of many privately funded railroads in Indiana and the nation built for specific purposes in the late 19th century that merged or closed in the early 20th, Galbraith says. Some rail fans refer to such lines as “ghost railroads” because so little remains from them.

Michels now has an original stock certificate for the rail line found for sale online by local historian Creager Smith. He also has a signed business letter on the railroad’s stationery.

But clues about Wm. H. Franke have so far proved elusive. However, two recently turned up.

In “The History of Fort Wayne & Allen County 1700-2005,” a Wilhelm or Willy Franke is listed as a son of F. Wilhelm Franke, who came the Fort Wayne area from Germany in the mid-1840s as a small child. The elder Franke learned carpentry as a teen and had another son, Henry C. Franke, who also entered the trade.

And, the Oct. 25, 1916, edition of the Fort Wayne Weekly Sentinel mentions a William H. Franke who had just been appointed an instructor in the machine department of Fort Wayne Vocational School.

Galbraith says he likes the way the building’s fortunes have turned around.

“Our primary purpose is to get historic buildings repurposed and reused, and the Michels have done a great job,” he says. “I can’t think of a better vision and better outcome for an historic building.”

rsalter@jg.net

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