Rudolph Donmoyer: Mayor of South Bend’s Kalamity Korners and so much more

Four years after the first shots had been fired in the conflict that would become the American Civil War, Confederate General Robert E. Lee oversaw legions of troops who were battered, wounded, starving and losing. His numbers were dwindling even as desertions mounted daily. His men knew the war was over and so did he. All that was left to do was to end it.

Aaron Helman

Lee fit many of the stereotypes of the southern gentleman, famously taking the time to change into his pressed dress uniform before marching to meet General Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomattox Courthouse to sign the terms of surrender. Grant and his men were still wearing mud-caked field uniforms, and among those men was one who would later become a proud South Bender, an 18-year-old named Rudy Donmoyer.

Rudolph Wellington Donmoyer was born in 1847 on a Pennsylvania farm that wouldn’t be able to hold him for very long. By the age of 15, he managed to enlist to fight in the Union Army and saw just about as much action as anyone on either side. Donmoyer was involved in at least 45 battles, including the Battle of Gettysburg.

At the end of the war, Donmoyer was among the tens of thousands who heeded Horace Greeley’s advice to “Go west, young man,” and landed in the young city of South Bend. He was quickly married to Ella and began working for Studebaker, where he gained a reputation as a brilliant engineer.

During the coming years, he would be responsible for much of the early infrastructure of the growing city, constructing bulwarks for the East Race and helping to erect the 200-foot standpipe that became the heart of the South Bend Water Works in 1873. He’d parlay all of that experience, along with some family connections, into a long and notable career as the superintendent of the South Bend Toy Company. 

But despite his incredible history and his significant professional success, the newspapers were most often interested in the lesser trivialities of his life, and there were many of those. The Tribune reported when his friends threw him a surprise party, when he made watermelon ice cream, when he received an antique watch, when he was briefly arrested for a campfire that might have been a little too big, and when it was learned that he owned an unused bar of soap that was at least 35 years old:

Clipping from the South bend Tribune, February 23, 1881.

But more than any of that, at least in South Bend, he was known as the Mayor of Kalamity Korners, a position that once offered him a sarcastic and uncollectible salary of $50,000, more than the president of the United States at that time. The unserious nature of the offer didn’t stop it from becoming front page news.

Kalamity Korners marked a small segment of South Bend along Western Avenue between Lafayette and William streets. It was the place where old pioneers would visit cafes, taverns, groceries, and dry good dealers to reminisce about old times and argue about politics. Kalamity Korners was more than a curiosity in young South Bend. It was a known and named part of the city, and the Tribune even carried reports attributed to their Kalamity Korners Korrespondent, a bad acronym that does not hold up today:

Clipping from the South Bend Tribune, August 1, 1893.

Donmoyer’s first South Bend home was at Kalamity Korners, but it wasn’t long before he moved to a farm at a place that used to be outside of the city. He grew corn, raised chickens and built the first silo in St. Joseph County all at the place that is directly across the river from the boat launch at Kernan Park and firmly within the city’s limits.

The move was a successful one for Donmoyer and launched him into a new and unexpected second career as an agricultural lecturer, teaching local farmers how to improve crop yields and egg production. But what was good for Donmoyer wasn’t good for the denizens of Kalamity Korners, at least according to the front page of the Tribune:

Clipping from The South Bend Tribune, October 1, 1891.

The paper’s facetious reporting might have masked the otherwise undeniable tragedies of Donmoyer’s life. There were the obvious horrors he’d witnessed on his parade of bloody battlefields. There was the older the brother who died during the same Civil War that made Donmoyer a hero. Rudy and Ella only had one child, and he died as an infant. In 1881, Donmoyer was present at a shooting contest where a dear friend lost his life in a gun accident. Donmoyer listened as the man shouted his dying breath, “What will my poor wife and children do?” and even though he wasn’t the one who fired the shot, he never stopped hearing those words.

In 1911, Rudolph Donmoyer retired from the South Bend Toy Company and was celebrated throughout the community as a hard worker, community builder and manager of men. Those who knew him knew he deserved the rest. His exploits were known throughout the city and so was he. Donmoyer Avenue was christened in 1907.

In his working life, Donmoyer had been so many things: a veteran, a hero, a friend, a character, a builder, a manager, a farmer, an authority, a collector of old soaps and a facetious mayor who stole the town’s attention.

In retirement, he was just one of those things, at least to hear the papers tell it. They trotted him out only occasionally, whenever they needed a piece to commemorate a Civil War anniversary come and gone. Despite his 50 years in South Bend and his massive role in building the infrastructure of the city, Donmoyer’s obituary remembered him primarily as the guy who was in the room with Lee and Grant.

Donmoyer re-enacting his Civil War days, 1930.

Rudy Donmoyer lived to see the age of 84, participating regularly in leadership positions with the G.A.R., and embracing his identity as South Bend’s longest lasting Civil War veteran. Years later, his home, his farm, and his silo would be knocked down to make room for the interchange at Lincoln Way and State Road 23. Donmoyer Avenue runs for less than a mile on South Bend’s south side, connecting Main and Miami streets.

Rudolph Wellington Donmoyer is buried in the South Bend City Cemetery.

Aaron Helman is an author, historian and humorist from South Bend. He is the author of An Incomplete History of St. Joseph County, Indiana, Ride the Jack Rabbit, and On the Southernmost Bend. Find all of his work at