Thursday, April 3, 2014

Swinney Home

by Tom Castaldi

Swinney Homestead is a Fort Wayne landmark that dominates the landscape of Swinney Park where West Jefferson Boulevard and Washington Street meet at the west edge of West Central Neighborhood. 
Swinney Homestead on West Jefferson.

Thomas Swinney came to Fort Wayne shortly before 1824.  Born in Piketon, Ohio in 1803, Swinney was a land speculator who developed a large part of west end Fort Wayne. Soon after his arrival in the pioneer town he married Lucy Taber, daughter of Paul Taber, also a land speculator.  Taber’s principal holdings in Fort Wayne were on the east end of the town. The west end lands that Thomas Swinney held, including the present –day West Swinney Park, were often the center of large community gatherings.

Here at the Swinney property on July 4, 1843, hundreds of people of Fort Wayne and the surrounding region gathered to celebrate the grand opening of the Wabash and Erie Canal, the longest canal ever built in North America.  Its ground-breaking had been held here in 1832, and in this presidential election year of 1843, candidate Lewis Cass appeared in town to make laudatory speeches along with other state and local notables.

Peter Kaiser, one of Fort Wayne’s earliest German settlers, and a butcher by trade, was in charge of the free barbecue of four fat oxen he acquired in the Wea prairie west of Lafayette, Indiana.  These beasts wisely had refused to board a canal boat for their last journey.  As it turned out, Kaiser had to drive them on foot over 110 miles back to Swinney’s, a trip that took 11 days. It’s said that he seemed to take an unusual delight when it came time to butcher these stubborn animals for the feast.
Back of the Swinney House
Original construction of the house was begun in 1844 with a second story, wing, and rear portion added in 1885.  Thomas Swinney gave to the city of Fort Wayne the eastern portions of his property.  In 1847, the Allen County Fair was established on these grounds, with a half-mile racetrack as well as the usual display pens and corrals.  The annual September Fair was held here for many years afterward.  More than a decade later, in 1889, the first local Labor Day celebration was held on the Swinney grounds, and labor leaders long viewed the area as special for laboring people.
Log cabin on the grounds of the Swinney House
By the terms of Thomas Swinney’s will, the remainder of his great pioneer estate was bequeathed to the city of Fort Wayne upon the death of the last of his daughters, Caroline and Frances.  In 1924, the home was occupied by the Allen County - Fort Wayne Historical Society which remained there until the Society opened to the public in October 1980 in the Old City Hall History Center. 

Other portions of the western lands were acquired earlier by the city in 1918 for park development, and a public swimming pool was constructed.  Some of these acres were leased to George Trier, an entertainment entrepreneur, who developed what came to be renowned in the middle of the twentieth century as “Trier’s Park.”  It was a place that is still remembered by many with fondness including a roller coaster, bumper cars, dance halls and other amusements until a great fire swept the place in 1953.  As a park, the area was famous for its Japanese Gardens, picnic grounds and country settings.  Its name, however, was changed to the Jaenicke Gardens soon after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

Originally published in Fort Wayne Magazine “Along the Heritage Trail with Tom Castaldi” – April 2008 No. 42

Allen County Historian Tom Castaldi is author of the Wabash & Erie Canal Notebook series; hosts “On the Heritage Trail,” which is broadcast at 6:35 a.m., 8:35 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. Mondays on WBOI, 89.1 FM; and “Historia Nostra” heard on WLYV-1450 AM and WRRO 89.9 FM. Enjoy his previously published columns on the History Center’s blog, “Our Stories,” at history

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