The curious Wilber name of Wilber Street fame

The May 10, 1927 issue of the South Bend Tribune recounted the curious story of the naming of Wilber Street as one of the five Brain Teasers that would appear to quiz locals about their knowledge of local news whenever the paper was short a few column inches at the end of the day. In this edition, they mentioned the etymology of the street northwest of downtown South Bend, and they almost got it right:

Clipping from the May 10, 1927, issue of the South Bend Tribune.

They got the right guy, and they were right on about when the street was named and when its namesake died. The only problem is that the adorable story about the mistake at the recorder’s office isn’t true. There was no misspelling. There was no error. Wilber Street is spelled exactly the way it’s supposed to be spelled, and to understand why, we’ve got to start somewhere in Ohio in 1843.

Aaron Helman

Wilber Gorsuch was born to a pair of Marylanders on a mission, part of a massive migration that was coming to settle the west. His father Isaac had come to Ohio when he was 14, and after marrying Mary and birthing a pair of children, the Gorsuches continued on to Indiana. They settled in South Bend in 1850 when Wilber was seven and his little brother Stanley was two. They’d never move anywhere else again.

Isaac and Mary Gorsuch picked a good time to buy real estate in South Bend. In the aftermath of Alexis Coquillard’s failed Kankakee Mill Race, enormous swaths of his land were seized by the bank and sold off in bulk. Gorsuch was able to purchase prime farmland on West Washington Street at bargain prices so long as he didn’t mind the dry ditch that Coquillard and his men had carved diagonally through the property. By the late 1800s, the deal proved to be a real estate coup. The sprawling city of South Bend had moved west toward the Gorsuch homestead, and they were able to piecemeal their bargain acreage in land sales to the well-to-do, guaranteeing an enormous profit.

The Gorsuches built a respectable family home at 709 West Washington Street and The Tribune took care to praise the improvements that the family had made on the property over the years. At one point in time, they might have even had one of the finer homes on the block, at least until K.C. DeRhodes commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to build his flagship home right next door.

Isaac Gorsuch passed away in 1908 at the age of 90, but already his son was making a name for himself in the city. In fact, by the time the elder Gorsuch passed away, his son already had a South Bend street named after him.

Wilber Gorsuch had served with the 73rd Indian Infantry Regiment during the Civil War, seeing action at Perryville, Stone’s River and Athens before mustering out in 1865. He married Loretta Jane Morgan upon his return, farmed on the family homestead and took a job as a grocer on the corner of Michigan and Washington Streets. He was active in the GAR (Grand Army of the Republic) Auten Post and served in several leadership positions of the veteran’s organization. By 1880, he stepped into local politics, winning election as Portage Township Trustee. In 1883, he did whatever this is:

May 23 1883. There is no article attached to this headline. I have no idea what it means.

Gorsuch’s time as a Township Trustee was considered a success in the eyes of his constituents, but he found the entire ordeal too frustrating and too exhausting to consider a second term. He’d spent the better part of two years building and rebuilding a Springbrook Bridge that kept falling down, and he decided he’d rather put that kind of time and effort into his own land instead.

But his land was disappearing.

As the city encroached upon the Gorsuch homestead, West Washington Street became the most desirable address in town. Isaac Gorsuch sold off the acreage to elite South Benders, taking away the best spot for Wilber to practice his agriculture. So he purchased a 10-acre plot of land outside of the city, on Elwood Street, just west of Portage Road. There, he became famous for his prowess in the fields, winning awards at the fair and hosting strawberry feasts that became front page news.

As a practicing politician and active member in civic organizations, Wilber Gorsuch appeared in the papers often enough, but as a farmer, he was something of a rock star. An 1886 mention in The Tribune praised his “monstrous melons, capacious cabbages, corpulent cucumbers, pot-bellied potatoes, bulky beets, puffy pumpkins, squabby squashes, bloated beans, cyclopean carrots, pullulated parsnips, ample artichokes, and padded pears.”

By 1891, the Gorsuch farm needed a road to help connect it to the larger South Bend grid. For reasons that remain lost to history, the city chose the agriculturalist’s first name instead of his last name to mark the lane. Wilber Street was completed in 1893 and has been spelled with an ‘E’ ever since. There was no confusion in any recorder’s office when the road was built. That wouldn’t come until later when Wilber Gorsuch would change the spelling of his name.

He was Wilber on every census form he ever filled out. He was Wilber when he took out an ad in the paper to announce his own candidacy for office. He was Wilber when The Tribune reported on his comings and goings while he was an employee of the paper. He was Wilber when he was named South Bend Police Chief in 1901, and he is definitely Wilber on a 1912 replica Civil War pin that you can buy on eBay if you really want to:

But as whispers of a Great War began to bubble up, it seems that perhaps Wilber Gorsuch wanted to distance himself from the Germanic etymology of his first name. Wilbur with a ‘U’ was a much more Anglicized version of the same name, one that was maybe a little less reminiscent of Wilhelm. Whatever the reason, in the press and in private correspondence, he began to appear as Wilbur. If the change didn’t help the man’s prospects, it certainly didn’t hurt. This new Wilbur ascended to the rank of State Commander of the GAR. There were feasts and celebrations and commemorations in honor of Wilbur. In 1925, he died as Wilbur, was obituarized as Wilbur, was buried as Wilbur in the South Bend City Cemetery, and then that’s where the Gorsuch line ends.

His younger brother, Stanley, died before reaching adulthood. Wilbur and Loretta never had any children of their own. The home that he built on his family’s land is still standing, an American Four Square at 705 West Washington. Other than that, all that’s left of the family legacy is Wilber Street, running west of downtown South Bend for a mile-and-a-half, very nearly connecting the man’s Washington Street home to his Elwood Street farm.

Aaron Helman is an author, adventurer and historian from South Bend. His school bus used to travel down Wilber Street. His newest book, On the Southernmost Bend, is available for preorder right now.