Lambert: Dillman a Huge Name in Plainfield History

All that remains today is a three-block street named Dillman, but the family's foundry once made them among the most prosperous in town.

The Inquiry

Truthfully, many of the street names in our town have no story to tell. But there are some that are reminders of the important people, places and events that shaped our community -- and their stories largely unfamiliar to most residents.    

Such is the case with Dillman Street, a busy three-block thoroughfare just east of Route 59. So, what's the story?

The Facts

The Dillman family has appeared in several recent columns; the extended family is tied to , Thomas Edison and .

Born in 1797 in Centre County, Pa., Michael Dillman was the son of Conrad and Elizabeth Dillman. The Dillman family had relocated to Greensburg, Ohio, by 1813, but Michael Dillman returned to Pennsylvania to wed Anna Mary Dauberman around 1821. 

The newlyweds returned to Ohio, where their family grew and prospered. Between 1823 and 1842, 10 children were born to the couple. Michael Dillman developed a reputation as a prosperous and progressive farmer. 

Also in the early 1820s, Anna Mary Dillman’s sister, Catherine, married Daniel Shreffler at Centre County, Pa., where they made their home. The Shrefflers had six children, including Andrew, who was born in 1826.

A few years later, a young man in Ohio—Cornelius Aultman—was beginning a remarkable career. At age 14, Aultman worked with his uncle as a millwright. After a few months, he returned to Greensburg, Ohio, where Michael Dillman lived.

In 1844, Michael Dillman’s eldest son, Joel, married Lydia Aultman, the sister of Cornelius.  

The following year, Dillman’s second son, John, purchased land at Plainfield.

Back in Greensburg, Aultman was learning the wheelwright trade (wagon building) and how to manufacture spinning wheels and grain cradles.

After mastering these trades, he worked in the machine shop of Wise & Ball in the spring of 1845. There, he learned the mechanic’s trade, making plows, cultivators and other light farm tools.

In 1846, Daniel and Catherine Shreffler followed John Dillman to Plainfield, where they instituted a German Evangelical congregation.

At about the same time in Greensburg, Michael Wise and Ephraim Ball were becoming interested in the invention of the grain reaper, an innovative machine that cut and bundled grain—devised simultaneously, but independently, by Obed Hussey and Cyrus McCormick.

In 1847, only a few reapers—based on the Hussey design—had been manufactured at Martin's Ferry, Ohio. Those reapers and the reapers produced at Greensburg were the first machines of their kind to be built in Ohio. The implement would—in a short time—revolutionize harvesting on the Midwestern prairies. Michael Dillman purchased one of the reapers made at Greensburg and was greatly impressed with its operation.  

In the summer of 1847, Andrew Dillman and his cousin, Andrew Shreffler, travelled from Ohio to Illinois, selling five reapers to farmers in this area. Encouraged by their reception, the two young men returned to Ohio and told Michael Dillman of the opportunity in Illinois. 

Between 1847 and 1848, Aultman continued to improve the manufacturing of reapers at Ohio. Small foundries throughout the Midwest began manufacturing reapers based on the Hussey and McCormick designs.  Hussey and McCormick became fierce business rivals in their efforts to mass-produce reapers for prairie farmers. In the midst of this revolution, Cyrus McCormick was erecting a large reaper manufactory at Chicago. 

Lewis Miller, a stepbrother of Cornelius Aultman and Lydia Dillman, had been teaching school at Ohio. But recognizing the potential of the reaper business, he accompanied Aultman, Ball and the Michael Dillman family to Plainfield in 1849.  

Here, the industrious men established the Dillman Foundry & Fanning Mill Manufactory. From 1849 to 1850, the company manufactured 37 reapers.  

However, Hussey filed suit for patent infringement against the Plainfield company, eventually settling for a percentage of each reaper manufactured at the Dillman factory.  

In 1851, Miller and Aultman returned to Ohio, where they eventually became the largest manufacturers of farm implements in the world -- and incredibly affluent in the process.

In Plainfield, the foundry flourished. Michael Dillman erected a home a short distance from the Dillman Foundry (at what is now the south end of Dillman Street). Joel Dillman built a home nearby, on present-day Corbin Street.  Several other residences were constructed near the foundry to house workers. 

In 1861, Michael Dillman died. That Autumn, Plainfield College opened at the north end of present-day Dillman Street. From 1861 to 1866, Joel Dillman served as one of the first trustees of Plainfield College, where the first faculty included several relatives of the extended Dillman family. 

However, the lack of railroad transportation frustrated Plainfield’s growth in the 1860s. In October 1863, Andrew Dillman and Andrew Shreffler moved the foundry to Joliet, where shipping by railroad was possible. There, the two men erected impressive mansions as their wealth increased. 

The Plainfield foundry site burned to the ground in 1877. The Dillman homes and other structures at Plainfield—with the exception of one small workers’ cottage—have disappeared over time as well. 

Today, the legacy of this important pioneer family is marked only by several modest headstones in the local cemetery … and a few street signs along the three blocks of a well-traveled side street.   

R. Paxson November 17, 2011 at 05:40 PM
It's unfortunate that today, Ms. Gill (Police Blotter) in an unrelated way, low-lighted the Dillman legacy.


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