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. He is best remembered for being a skilled blacksmith and wheelwright who operated a shop he and his father built on the original family farm in about 1875. He apprenticed with a local master to learn the trade. 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. He spent his leisure hours fishing at nearby Independence Lake, half of which he owned. However, due to illness, he was forced to retire in 1914. Jean then built a store on the property which still stands today over a mile away.
Ownership of the family farm continued to pass through family members, ending with Pearl Wheeler McMichael. Jean’s store was dragged about a mile away across the fields to become a home for their son Paul.
After almost 150 years, the house, outbuildings, and a few acres were sold to Mr. and Mrs. Robert Beaugrand who donated the shop and its contents to WTHS. 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. However, 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. In the 1920s, Henry Ford visited the shop and bought an old steam engine for his museum at Greenfield Village.
The first project of the WTHS was to move and restore this building. On October 23, 1985, a crew of Amish carpenters from Quincy, MI, began the task of dismantling, moving, and reconstructing the building in Historic Webster Village. Today it is a museum for old tools and has an operational forge, which is used annually at the Webster Fall Festival.