Time was, a squirrel could cross Indiana by jumping from one tree to another, without touching the ground. Or so the legend goes. What is known is that the 20 million acres of forest Indiana boasted in the eighteenth century had dwindled to two million by the dawn of the twentieth. In the meantime, Indiana had become a manufacturing hub. While production of caskets and hickory furniture boomed in the southern part of the state, the plentiful hickory, walnut and white oak forests in the north gave rise to myriad industries, most notably, perhaps, the wagon works that became the Studebaker empire. Another corporation with a significant presence in St. Joseph County was New York-based Singer Manufacturing Company.
In keeping with prevailing consumer tastes, Singer began creating wooden housing for their sewing machines in the 1860s. Two Northern Indiana cities competed for the contract, but ultimately South Bend prevailed over Mishawaka in landing the Singer Cabinet Works. In 1868, a brick factory went up on the St. Joseph River, between Emerick and Madison Streets, and 168 workers began production of the veneer-faced pine-backed sewing machine cabinets. Far outpacing the efficiency of the Indianapolis Cabinet Company, which was also contracted with Singer, the South Bend plant was soon completing ten thousand cabinets a week. In 1901, Singer Works acquired property on South Bend’s Western Avenue, and five new buildings were constructed, along with an in-factory rail line connecting with the Lake Shore and Michigan Railroad. The world’s largest cabinet factory employed 3000 people, including many Polish and Hungarian immigrants, at its peak during World War I.
The Great Depression, and a shortage of locally-sourced hardwood, took its toll on South Bend’s Singer Works, which finally halted production in 1955. Indiana forests have doubled in acreage in the last century.