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Ben Schroeder Saddletree Factory:
A Museum of Industrial Heritage

Historic Madison Inc.
nears completion
of its restoration project

Don Ward
Editor


(October 2001) Madison, In – Surrounded by onlookers in a darkened early 19 century woodworking shop, Robert Yuill cranked up a 70-year-old machine, fed into it a stack of small, wooden blocks and watched as it noisily spat out a series of rough-edged clothes pins.

Saddle Tree Factory

The visitors inched closer to accept samples while carefully stepping around pipes and wires and wood.
Moving alternately to a wood planer, table saw, band saw and slotting saw, Yuill started each one and demonstrated how these antiquated yet precise instruments were refurbished, their motors rewound and their belts and pulleys cleaned and returned to perfect working order.
Now if there was only a market for pre-World War I saddletrees, the wooden frames once used to form the skeleton of Western and English leather-bound horse saddles.
But there is a market for heritage tourism. And Historic Madison Inc. is hoping its newest addition to its collection of 14 historic sites will attract an entirely new audience when the Ben Schroeder Saddletree factory opens to the public in spring 2002. The $1.2 million restored factory will join four other HMI-owned sites in Madison that are open for public tours. The 40-year-old, not-for-profit historic preservation organization was founded by the late John Windle and today boasts 750 members.
“Madison is strong in the historical homes and the arts, but an industrial museum is a whole new thing,” said HMI president John Galvin. “This project will increase Madison’s standing as a place to experience 19th century America from the 21st century world.”
A ribbon-cutting ceremony and community open house is planned for Oct. 27, when the newly restored factory and home will be open for public tours. Next year, the one-of-a-kind museum will offer individual, school and group tours from April to October. The gift shop will sell such items as booklets, clothes pins, educational literature and post cards.
Already, the 10-year-old restoration project has garnered interest worldwide from organizations and individuals involved in industrial history and archaeology. Dozens of college students from four southern Indiana campuses have worked on the project, and educational programming is being developed to provide on-site demonstrations for area schools.
Volunteers are being trained to operate the machines and lead tours, said project director John Stacier, 41, a New York native hired by HMI in 1991 to oversee the restoration effort and its future museum operation. He has directed dozens of graduate students and volunteers who over the last decade have carefully catalogued and warehoused tools, sales records and household items used by the Schroeders. Guided by research, documents and clues left behind by the Schroeder family, Stacier and others have replaced many of those items as they once were in an attempt to recreate the period.
Iron tools hang from the walls and ceilings of the woodworking and blacksmith shops. Knob and tube lighting has been replaced with modern reproductions that look original. Sagging wooden floors and foundations have been repaired and shored up. The interior of the home near the front of the complex has been remodeled to serve as a gift shop, ticket area and two exhibit rooms that will tell the story of the saddletree business and the Schroeders’ lifestyle.
The business was one of 12 saddletree factories that once operated in Madison, and among the smallest, supplying saddle trees to customers in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Cuba and South America.
“Our goal from the beginning has been to relearn the art of saddletree making as the Schroeders knew it,” said Stacier. “We’ve sort of stitched the manufacturing story, or at least the bare bones of it, back together.”
Galvin, HMI board members and about 100 guests on Sept. 8 toured the Schroeder woodworking and blacksmith shops and Schroeder home, built in 1897. Galvin used the occasion to detail the history of the project, while Stacier provided insight into the Schroeders’ life and work while leading the tour of the site.
Yuill, 47, a machinery conservator based in Birmingham, Ala., operated the machinery for the visitors. He spent nearly a year living in Madison and restoring the machines for use in the future museum. He called the project “the biggest one I’ve ever been associated with, in terms of its historical significance.”
He added that the Schroeders’ ingenuity to make the most out of the tools and materials they had at the time “is one of the more important stories here.”
The day began with opening remarks from Galvin, Stacier and HMI board chairman Merritt Alcorn, a local attorney. The group then toured each building and watched Yuill’s machinery demonstrations.
Alcorn called the project “a treasure trove” of saddletree factory tools, adding that HMI has achieved “a reconstruction of the highest quality.”
The Schroeder family operated the factory from 1878 until the youngest son died in 1972. When the property was donated to HMI in 1975 by the Schroeder estate, it was in “complete disrepair,” Alcorn said. Because no money was available at the time to pursue the project, HMI essentially “mothballed” the site, Galvin said.
It was not until 1987 that money became available through private donations. Windle died in 1987, but his widow, Ann Windle, insisted on moving forward on the project, Galvin said. With her own donation, HMI initiated a study that resulted in the decision to restore the property, establish a museum and hire Stacier. A graduate of State University of New York, he had previously worked at Hanford Mills, a historic water-powered mill and woodworking shop in East Meredith, N.Y.
“I didn’t put too much pressure on John. I just said the promise of success or failure rests on your shoulders, and here are the keys,” Galvin joked.
An Indiana Department of Transpor-tation made available $632,000 to HMI in 1996 to help pay for the restoration, with 20 percent of the money to be matched by other contributions. Those funds came from the Lilly Endowment Inc., Cinergy and the Horn, Ogle, Schroeder and Yunker foundations, as well as individual contributors.
“There was no city money used in the project, but the city’s participation was necessary as the sponsoring government organization for use to qualify for the grant,” Galvin said.
Alcorn commended the work by Stacier, “whose competency, dedication and scholarship has defined the project,” he said.
Others involved in the project were equally impressed with the outcome. John Bowie, a historical architect from Pennsylvania, said, “The challenge of a museum specialist is to decide what items to replace that will tell the story and enhance the experience of the visitor. John Stacier has done an excellent job in that regard.”
Bowie was hired to research and oversee the architectural accuracy in the Schroeder buildings’ reconstruction. Olentangy Restoration of Marion, Ohio, won the bids to restore all three buildings.
“We wanted to make sure the buildings are preserved and historically accurate, but also that the site can function as a museum so the public can safely come through here,” Bowie said.
Bowie and others agreed that the most impressive aspect for visitors will be watching the old machines work. “You’ll get to see and smell the wood and feel the ground shake. It’s more than going to a static museum exhibit,” he said.
“I think visitors will be struck by the ingenuity of the people who lived and worked here,” said Suzann Leist of Crittenden, Ky., whose husband, Joe, provided research on the project. “It will be especially interesting to men and boys because of all the machinery.”
Philip Scarpino, a history professor from Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis, provided about 50 students and his own time on the project over the last decade. Scarpino called the museum “unique in the United States and maybe in the Western world.
“It’s really hard to realize how unique the project is to Madison – not only to be able to acquire the money to stabilize the building, but to restore the machinery and get it back into working order is quite an achievement. It took a tremendous amount of hours, so this is a very significant place.”

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