PORTLAND, Ind. (WPTA21) - “It’s the hub of activity in Jay County and Portland,” historian Jane Spencer said.
She’s talking about the Weiler Building on Main & Meridian Streets.
Though its only stood there since 1927, the intersection has long been the focal point of the area, often serving as a gathering place for its people.
The look of the land has changed drastically since the 1800’s, but its function has remained mostly the same.
“This has always been the gathering place, since 1836, ’37, ’38 when they built the first general store here on the corner,” Spencer told us.
“We start with a farm, then we go to the trade palace, then we come to the Bimel building,” she continued, “the bimel building burns, then this almost fireproof building, steel and mortar, comes in 1927.”
In the late 1800’s, the trade palace offered residents a place to buy necessary items, like medicine.
Wheel manufacturer Fred Bimel bought a building at the World’s Fair in Chicago, had it disassembled, and taken by train back to Portland.
There, the castle-like structure would stand first housing a hardware store.
Morris Weiler, a German immigrant, opened his department store in the Bimel building before, it burned down in 1925.
He would then finance the construction of a new, steel and mortar building taking his name as the ‘Weiler Building’.
Jane Spencer recalls fond memories from its heyday, “This opened in 1927, and all of us that grew up here, remember coming in here at Christmas - the windows animated just like they did in the big towns like Fort Wayne!”
“I remember one year they had little animals on sleds coming down hills, my father brought me here on Christmas and I’d get to pick out something for my mother,” she described, “a sweet little lady would wrap up your present and then we’d take it home and put it under the tree. Those are wonderful memories. This of course, was where we came to see Santa Clause.”
After the Weiler department store closed, other businesses would temporarily inhabit the space, until its threatened demolition over twenty years ago.
“To most people it looked like it needed to be torn down, and made into a parking lot,” Spencer said, “but what a treasure we wouldn’t have had, if that happened.”
Spencer is referring to what occupies the Weiler Building now - the John Jay Center for Learning.
Now, people from eleven different counties, in Indiana and Ohio, gather to learn new skills for better opportunities.
Rusty Inman leads the John Jay Center for Learning.
He says it was the generosity of the community, who invested locally to make Portland and the area around it, a better place.
“We’re hear in the future right?” Inman said, talking about a $2 million dollar investment to train workers in the latest manufacturing technology.
“We’re upscaling employees,” he said, “there’s always going to be manufacturing jobs, and that’s what we’re doing is teaching these people - so that local factories don’t leave here, because we don’t have a skilled enough workforce.”
Around 1999, the Portland Foundation helped with the effort to preserve the Weiler Building.
“They bought the building. Two years - a year on the outside, a year on the inside, of rehabilitation,” Inman told us, “a $4.5 million dollar project - half a million from Indiana Historic Landmarks and $4 million raised locally to make this place happen.”
Once a gathering place, still a gathering place.
“What we’re doing now, the lives we’re impacting, the education we’re bringing?” Inman said, “Education is a way out of poverty in my estimation. So that’s what we’re doing here. We’re giving people an opportunity.”
From a farm, to trade palace, to department store, to learning center - one block of 21Country remains a steadfast part of the past, present, and future in Jay County.
“I think all of us need to be mindful of our history. I think we learn from our history. I always said when I was teaching that it was a good way for students to get an interest in history, if we started right here in Jay County,” Spencer concluded, “I could take them to places like the John Jay Center. I could take them to where the first settlers built their cabin, and they could stand on the threshold, and experience it. And then you could build from the local history out, to the state history, to the national history, to the world history. I think we all need to learn our history, honor it, and respect it.
You can find more information on the programs the John Jay Center for Learning offers for adults and kids, on their website.
Other businesses that have also made their home in the Weiler Building include: The Portland Foundation, United Way of Jay County, DAYSTAR Staffing, Bizy Dips, DBS Web Design, Pro Resources, and ReSprout Therapy.