1818 - 1899
When Bloomington was founded in 1818, the Indiana wilderness was the frontier of expansion in the nation. As craftspeople, religious missionaries and families trickled in from the East, the foundations of Bloomington began to form. Even 200 years later, the people and values that have upheld the community for two centuries are still stitched into the fabric of Bloomington life.
One family who forged Bloomington: The Seward legacy
On Memorial Day when Allen Dunn was young, his family would load bouquets of fresh-cut peonies from his grandmother’s garden into their Buick and head to Rose Hill Cemetery. It was time to be with the Sewards. Now 64, he remembers placing the bouquets beside their headstones, the feeling of his family’s legacy like a blanket of pride over his shoulders. He says he carries that feeling with him today.
“You talk about things that pass through the ages,” he says. “And I think that’s one thing that’s interesting about my family – about Seward & Company.”
Allen is a descendent of Austin and Jane Seward, who settled in Bloomington just three years after its founding in 1818 and started a business that would remain open for more than 160 years. The Sewards are one of Bloomington’s oldest families, and subsequent generations have shaped the city in countless ways over the last 200 years. Profiled within these pages are five Sewards who took the community service and work ethic of their family legacy to heart, helping to forge a city in the process.
The 1800s, Austin Seward
Beginning in 1818, a series of things happened that would forever alter the course of Bloomington’s history. First, the township was officially established. Two years later, Pres. James Madison designated Bloomington as the location for the state seminary, a religious institution at what is now Seminary Square that would eventually become Indiana University.
Then, Austin Seward came to town.
A native of Virginia, he came to Indiana by way of Kentucky with his wife, Jane, and their two children. He’d been to the area once before, to visit some of Jane’s relatives, and found the fledgling town lacked something he could provide – blacksmithing.
Austin built two log buildings on the corner of present-day Seventh and Walnut streets. The first was a cabin, where he lived with his family. The second was a blacksmith shop – a business he named Seward & Co.
Crippled by a horse-riding accident, Austin was unable to farm as many early settlers did. His legendary blacksmithing skills were as much a solution to his disability as a response to the community’s need, and Austin’s business grew with the thriving pioneer community. There was little he couldn’t make. He crafted farming tools like scythes, augers and knives, among other items, but specialized in axes and rifles.
“He was an edgemaker,” Allen Dunn says. “He could take steel and attach it to iron and make an axe – and a successful axe. People came for miles to buy from him.”
In 1825, demand for Austin’s goods had grown so much that he opened a larger shop across the street. The one-story brick building contained four rooms. Eventually, he would add a second story. Then a foundry. Then steam power.
As Austin’s blacksmith shop grew, so did his family. He and Jane would ultimately have 11 children, eight of whom would live to see adulthood.
Austin quickly became indispensable to the community. Andrew Wylie, then president of the state seminary – which would be renamed Indiana University in 1838 – reportedly said of Austin, “This community can better spare any man in it, the college, every professor, than it can spare Mr. Seward.”
This was true even in wartime. When the Civil War began in 1861, Seward & Co. was still making guns – this time for battle. The Union Army commissioned several cannons and 50 tons of bombshells and solid shot from Seward & Co. over the course of the war. One cannon, weighing over 800 pounds, called the "six-pounder," and made of bronze, was put to use against the Confederate Army in Kentucky in 1862.
While there’s no doubt that the company played its part in the Union’s victory, the Civil War weapons were not Austin Seward’s most enduring creation. In the 1830s, long before the outbreak of war, Austin was asked to create what would become his most famous work – the fish-shaped weathervane that still sits atop the Monroe County courthouse.
There is debate among Seward descendants as to why Austin chose to model the weathervane after a fish. Some claim that he was against the more-common weathervane rooster, as the animal was a symbol of the Democratic Party. Others argue the rooster wasn’t used to represent the party until 1840.
Maybe he chose the fish because it was a good shape for a weathervane. Or, even more whimsically, because he just liked fish.
Either way, nearly 180 years later, the carp still perches atop the courthouse and Allen sees it as a symbol of Bloomington.
“It’s an icon,” he says. “The city just sort of took the fish and ran with it.
Fashion of the era
The 19th Century Club is founded in October 1896
Comprising well-to-do women reformers, the 19th Century Club was created in 1896 as a book and educational group for women. Members met every two weeks and took turns presenting lessons and discussing topics such as the Civil War and American literature.
Christine Friesel at the Monroe County Public Library says they started by reading mostly prayer books and biographies of men but wanted to do more and had the leisure time and resources to do so. “These women became tired of just reading and being cultured,” she says.
The club joined with the Local Council of Women, a group that advocated for community health, and helped open Bloomington Hospital by securing a 10-room, brick house as the hospital. Eventually, the club donated much of its earnings and literature to open the Monroe County Library as well.
Despite the historical significance of these women, no photos of their work exist. “They weren’t prominent, so it wasn’t important for them to have photographs,” Friesel says, “but that’s another story to tell.”
Today, the 19th Century Club is a secret, underground organization that still actively participates in philanthropy, donating thousands of dollars to various organizations and awarding scholarship money to students graduating from county high schools who plan to attend Indiana University.
James D. Showers (1841 – 1939)
Founder of Showers Brothers Furniture
Born in Fort Wayne in 1841, James Showers moved with his family to Bloomington. His father was a cabinet-maker and built coffins for soldiers killed in the Civil War.
In 1869, James and his younger brother William paid $300 for their father's business, now Showers Brothers Furniture, which eventually would become the largest employer in Bloomington.
James and William were the major shareholders of the company for much of the company’s history. When they took over their father’s business, they expanded operations and invented the process known as laminating. They company continued to expand until 1904 when James sold his share of the company leaving William in charge. By 1910, the company occupied seven acres on Morton Street and was one of the leading furniture makers in the country.
James may have stepped down but he didn’t retire. He was president of the Citizens Loan & Trust company and also served on the City Council for 14 years and the school board for 17 years. James died April 5, 1939, in Bloomington.
According to the Monroe County Historical Society, the Showers Brothers were civic leaders who “helped modernize the city with electricity, paved roads and waterworks.”
The Showers Brothers Company employed 2,000 people, more than a fifth of the entire Bloomington population. The company produced more than 700,000 pieces of furniture a year. They produced more than half of all the furniture made in the United States at the time, the company declared itself “the world’s largest producer of bedroom and dining room furniture.”
“The entire infrastructure of the modern city was either set in place or modified and improved, by the Shower family,” wrote Carrol Krause about James and William and their family in her book Showers Brothers Furniture Company: The Shared Fortunes of a Family, a City and a University.
Then and now