After the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, Michigan evolved from a wilderness to statehood by 1837. Pioneers were attracted to the territory by land which sold for $1.25 an acre.
Tillotson Wheeler was one of Webster Township’s first settlers, arriving in 1829 from New Hampshire. On December 3, 1830, he purchased 80 acres from the US Government in Section 15 of Webster Township and an additional 40 acres in Section 14 on October 28, 1835. After several years spent clearing the land, he farmed here for the rest of his life. He and his wife Polly Campbell raised 3 children John Campbell (1824-1898), Martha Stevens (1828-1847), and Guy Henry (1832-1868).
John Campbell Wheeler built the brick house on this land that still stands today on Webster Church Road just north of North Territorial Road. He and his wife Mary Harrison raised 5 sons: Stearns T., Victor “Jean” (1852-1924), Oral Jay, Frank Harrison, and Samuel Thomas.
Jean Wheeler never married but became a major landowner in the area. However, Jean did not enjoy farming so he apprenticed as a blacksmith with a local master to learn the trade. Working with black metals–usually iron or steel–he operated a shop in the 28-foot square, 2-story building he and his father built on the original family farm in about 1875. Farmers nearby counted on Jean to fix their wagons, buggies, and sleighs. He also was skilled in making farm implements such as hay hooks, plow shares, and hand axes. In the 1920s, Henry Ford visited the shop and bought an old steam engine for his museum at Greenfield Village. Jean spent his leisure hours fishing at nearby Independence Lake, half of which he owned. However, due to illness, he was forced to retire from the blacksmith trade in 1914. Jean then built a general store on the property. This building was re-purposed when the last Wheeler descendant, Pearl Wheeler McMichael, owned the property, to be a home for her son and his family. It was moved a little over a mile away, and, although condemned, it still stands today on that land.
Sitting idle after 1914, the blacksmith shop gradually deteriorated as wild growth enveloped it–doors off and windows fell out, the roof no longer offered much protection against the elements, the siding fell off, the wind toppled the cupola, and the beams were all askew. After almost 150 years of Wheeler ownership, the house, outbuildings, and a few acres were sold to Mr. and Mrs. Robert Beaugrand who donated the shop and its contents to WTHS. The mortise and tenon construction held the building upright making restoration feasible. Found inside were a lathe, tire bender, sleigh runners, spokes, hubs, and other miscellaneous items. Family members have Jean’s tool box and some of his tools.
This was the first building to be placed in Historic Webster Village and was the first major project of the WTHS. On October 23, 1985, a crew of Amish carpenters from Quincy, MI, began the task of dismantling, moving, and reconstructing the building. Today it is a museum for old tools and has an operational forge, which is used annually at the Webster Fall Festival.