Have a seat, Mr. Huey, this road is named for you

Huey Street runs north and south along South Bend’s near westside, connecting Lathrop and Washington streets, and carving neat lines that run alongside my elementary and high schools. I rode in plenty of school buses that followed those lines, and being the hyper-observant child that I was, I peered through the bouncing vehicles and memorized the names of each of the roads we passed.

Aaron Helman

Huey Street, in particular, always made me smile. I thought it was neat that the city named a road after my second favorite of Donald Duck’s nephews.

It wasn’t a wholly unreasonable thought for my first-grade mind to hold. After all, South Bend also had a Duey Street. And for good measure, there was a St. Louis Street too. But despite the fact that Donald Duck Farm is a very real place a few miles north of the state line near Christiana Lake, it turns out that South Bend did not name a trio of its streets after the certified all-star cast of Ducktales.

Disappointingly, South Bend does not have any roads named after these scamps.

James Huey was born in Virginia in 1804, just two generations apart from his family’s very Irish roots. He married Mary, and the pair had a dozen children, nine of whom lived to see adulthood. He started a business as a chair and cabinet maker and might have expected a quiet and successful life in Virginia save for a curious and largely unexplained incident at his factory. In May 1851, Huey’s factory and all his life’s work were wrecked, burned and destroyed by an incendiary device. There aren’t more details than that. Less than a year later, the Hueys were off to Indianapolis.

Huey started another successful chair and cabinet business in Indiana’s capital city but lost his shirt all over again in the failure of the state’s wildcat banks. Hoping the third time would prove to be the charm, Huey landed in South Bend in 1857. He established a new base of operations on the city’s west race, sent four sons off to fight in the Civil War, and returned three of them. His son William died at the Battle of Dover in February 1863.

South Bend’s West Race, circa 1870.

His three oldest remaining sons – Melvin, Virgil and Milton – returned to South Bend as veterans and heroes. Melvin was the only South Bender still in the field in the weeks after the surrender at Appomattox, the only one still chasing down rogue Confederates across scattered southern battlefields, and the only one to return home with stories about the capture of Jefferson Davis.

All three were quickly brought into the fold at the Huey chair factory, but it wouldn’t be long before tragedy struck again. After losing a pair of sons as infants and another in battle, and after watching one business explode and another dissolve, James Huey was visited by familiar ghosts in 1871 when his South Bend chairworks burnt to the ground. The man decided he’d had enough even before the rubble stopped smoldering. He quit the business and bought a farm on Elwood Street. It’s from this farm that today’s Huey Street takes its name, but this is not where the Huey story ends.

In the aftermath of the 1871 fire, Virgil, Melvin and Milton would take the reins of their father’s business, establishing the Huey Chair Company, and gathering an impressive list of stockholders that included Schuyler Colfax and Louis Humphreys, second mayor of South Bend. They sold chairs as far afield as Chicago and Omaha, and in 1877 boasted that they’d sawed more than a million feet of lumber. They worked with Singer to build chairs “six inches higher than the standard,” producing the first chair specifically for use with a sewing machine.

Milton was the first brother to leave the business and the city, settling in Indianapolis and serving as President of the Capitol Lumber Company.

Melvin was no slouch himself, establishing himself as a South Bend pillar, and earning an Odd Fellows’ Jewel in 1908, one of fewer than 30 Hoosiers to earn that honor at that time.

As for Virgil Huey, the oldest brother, he became the manager at the chair factory, and oversaw the company’s growth throughout the 1870s. Virgil would become one of the earliest patrons of South Bend’s First Presbyterian Church, and his wife, Cornelia, would lead its Sunday School for many years. The church was housed in many buildings throughout the years, but it’s poetic that the current building, erected in 1934, sits on the land that used to be the Virgil Huey home.

Virgil became a folk hero in South Bend when he leapt into the St. Joseph River to save the life of a young boy, then became a tragic curiosity when he was appointed to a jury that would convict that very same child of significant thefts.

Virgil and Cornelia Huey

Virgil died of consumption in 1879, and with Milton out of town, that left Melvin solely in charge of the chairworks. When the whole thing burnt to the ground (now for the third time) in 1885, the Hueys exited the chair business for good. The Huey Chair Company became like dozens of other forgotten South Bend businesses, and if you’ve ever run across a Huey chair, I’d love to see it.

James Huey died in 1899 and was the oldest person in South Bend at the time of his death. He’s buried in the City Cemetery next to Virgil.

Melvin died in 1915 and is buried in the Highland Cemetery.

Milton died in Indianapolis in 1918 and is buried in the Crown Hill Cemetery.

Aaron Helman is an author, historian and adventurer from South Bend. You can probably find him at the South Bend Brew Werks. If you’ve seen a Huey chair, please email [email protected] to tell him about it.