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Major Richard Butler
An Early Arrival
An Early Arrival
With the recent popularity of the hip-hop musical eponymous with our city and his statuesque presence in the middle of High Street, most local citizens know for whom Hamilton was named.
The city was named after the fort established here by General Arthur St. Clair, perhaps to curry favor from the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton to secure the funds to fight the campaign against the native people that St. Clair was about to embark upon. The settlement that sprang up around the fort was at first called Fairfield, but when the fort was abandoned, the village took on the name of the fort and Fairfield referred to the township in which it lay.
Less well known is the person for whom Butler County was named when the state of Ohio was established in 1803: Major General Richard Butler.
Alexander Hamilton was never actually in Hamilton, but General Butler was indeed for a short time a resident of the area. He arrived at Fort Hamilton on September 27, 1791, three days before the fort was officially dedicated.
He had come from Western Pennsylvania, where another Butler County has been named in his honor, where he had retired after the Revolutionary War.
Butler was born in Ireland, the oldest son in a large family that came to America in 1748 when he was but five years old and settled on a farm near Carlisle, Pennsylvania. At 20, he enlisted to fight the Indian wars and saw his first action in the Battle of Bushy Run that relieved a siege on Fort Pitt. Until he volunteered again for the Revolutionary War, he worked as an Indian trader in the Ohio Territory and became proficient in several native languages.
During the Revolution, he wintered at Valley Forge and fought at Monmouth, Saratoga, and Yorktown. He became well-acquainted with General Washington and was promoted to Brigadier General during the last days of the war. He stayed with the army for a time, fighting with Anthony Wayne
Afterward, he retired to Pittsburgh, married and started a family. He became a judge and a state senator. His oldest child was but eight years old when Washington, now the President of the United States, called him back into service after General Josiah Harmer’s army suffered a disastrous defeat against Little Turtle and Blue Jacket during the winter of 1790.
While General Arthur St. Clair directed the building of Fort Hamilton the following year, President Washington appointed Major General Butler, who had presided over the board of enquiry that sat in judgment over Harmar’s to be the second in command and charged him with assembling recruits to augment St. Clair’s troops so they could continue the campaign against the Indians. Butler was then 48 years old and not in good health. A contemporary described him as “fleshy” at that time, suggesting that he had packed a few pounds onto his five-foot six-inch frame.
Nevertheless, he tried his best to raise an army for his old friend, but the pickings for soldiers were remarkably slim.
“Men who enlisted were often those without prospects or purpose” wrote Stephen M. Pozar in his biography of Richard Butler, “footloose individuals with perhaps a hankering for adventure, and the free use of an Army musket.”
Butler had been authorized to levy two thousand men, but mustered only about six hundred, and they were described as having been recruited from “the prisons, wheelbarrows and brothels of the nation,” and “a bad set of men” with “rotten legs.” Another contemporary called St. Clair’s army “the worst and most dissatisfied troops I ever saw.”
But Butler did manage to find at least two capable recruits, two of his five brothers who had fought in the Revolution. But even they had long been out of military service, Edward for seven and Thomas for nine years.
Shortly after their arrival at Fort Hamilton, St. Clair’s army began its march north to meet the Indians. Even with Butler’s recruits, the army numbered fewer than 1,500 men when they set out, and by the time they bivouacked on the evening of November 3, 1791, desertion and death from illness had reduced the force to a little more than nine hundred soldiers and about 200 camp followers.
The camp was surrounded on three sides by swamp and bounded on the fourth by a stream. There was not enough room for them all, so the militia was ordered to camp on the other side of the stream.
While they were busily preparing breakfast the following morning, Little Turtle’s Indian army launched a surprise attack, first engaging the militia on the opposite side of the stream. Butler tried to get his troops into a fighting formation but fleeing militia soldiers crashed into his unformed battle lines and created a scene of chaos.
Major General Butler was wounded in the arm but concocted a hasty sling and continued to move among his men trying to accomplish something resembling order. Then he was wounded in the side. His men used a blanket as a stretcher and carried him to the center of the encampment. His brother Edward found him there and had him moved to a place where the army would pass if it should be forced to retreat, then set out in search of Thomas. Edward found him, wounded in both legs with a broken thigh, and placed him alongside Richard, who was propped up against a tree, vomiting blood.
The Indians continued their assault and with retreat imminent, Richard, probably aware that his wounds were mortal, directed Edward to carry Thomas to safety, an order he reluctantly followed.
“The retreat became a rout,” Pozar writes, “and the Indians swarmed through the camp killing all within their reach; including the wounded; including the noncombatant camp followers—men, women and children. They swept on after the fleeing Americans but cut short the pursuit and returned to the camp to take scalps and collect the other spoils of victory.”
“Richard Butler was killed by a tomahawk blow to the head as he lay dying from his wounds. He was scalped; and his heart was cut out, divided, and eaten by the chiefs of the tribes that had defeated St. Clair’s army…”
As he was the second-ranking officer in the United States Army of the day, Butler still holds the record as the highest-ranking officer to be killed in the line of duty.
St. Clair lost his command as a result of that disastrous defeat, replaced by “Mad Anthony” Wayne, who followed St. Clair’s path and reached the scene of the battle on Christmas Day, 1793, finding the skeletal remains of the dead soldiers by the lumps they made in the fresh snow.
Most of them were buried in a mass grave, but what was identified as Richard Butler’s remains were buried separately. All of the remains from that horrible battle were later relocated to Fort Recovery, Ohio.
In addition to the counties of Ohio and Pennsylvania named in his honor, there is also a Butler County, Kentucky, as well as the city of Butler in Pennsylvania where the General Richard Butler Bridge crosses Connoquenessing Creek.
Commanders of Fort Hamilton
Scoundrels and Opportunists
Scoundrels and Opportunists
After Arthur St. Clair’s troops were routed at what is sometimes called the Battle of the Wabash River, but more frequently “St. Clair’s Defeat,” he resigned his commission as the commander of the army and went to Philadelphia to make his report and ask for a court martial in hopes of exonerating himself. President Washington denied him the opportunity, and St. Clair resigned his military commission, leaving General James Wilkinson in charge.
A native of Maryland, Wilkinson also had a rather checkered career. During the Revolutionary War, as a captain and an aide to General Horatio Gates, he was assigned to deliver dispatches to Congress regarding the victory at the Battle of Saratoga. He kept Congress waiting, however, as he tended to some personal business, which also gave him time to embellish his own role in the victory, which resulted in his being brevetted, or given an honorary rank, as a Brigadier General at the age of 20 and a seat on the Board of War.
This appointment over more senior officers caused much controversy, especially since his own gossip implicated him in a conspiracy to replace Washington with General Gates as the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. Because of this conspiracy, Gates compelled him to resign from the army in 1778. After a brief career of private enterprise, which included swearing allegiance to the King of Spain in order to facilitate trade between Spanish-controlled New Orleans and his newly-adopted home of Kentucky, then a few counties in Virginia seeking independence. In spite of this and other scandals, after Colonel Wilkinson led Kentucky volunteers in several battles against the Indians and again received a commission in the U.S. Army.
Wilkinson paused only briefly at Fort Hamilton before continuing north to recover 78 bodies and one piece of artillery. On February 5, he returned to Fort Hamilton and ordered Armstrong to build a flatboat that could go up-river to deliver supplies to a fort he established -- Fort St. Clair -- 25 miles to the north.
Although there were never any large attacks on Fort Hamilton by the Indians, it was a constant threat, and many couriers and scouts disappeared coming to or from the fort. “Scarcely a week passed,” according to the Centennial History of Butler County, “but what the incendiary blazing faggot, the deadly rifle, the murderous tomahawk, had been wielded by the stealthy, unpitying, vindictive” natives.
There were so many deserters that Wilkinson issued an order offering a $20 reward, a handsome sum at the time, for anyone shooting a deserter, and “if found making for the enemy, he is to be shot and his head brought in and set on a post on parade day.”
The Indians became bolder and on November 15, 1792, a soldier was fired upon at his post and several picketts removed from the fort walls in an attempt to steal cattle.
In December, Armstrong resigned his command of Fort Hamilton and Major Michael Rudolph assumed the post on the 10th, arriving with five companies of reinforcements. Rudolph had a reputation as an arbitrary and tyrannical officer, and that spring seven soldiers stole a canoe and deserted, heading for New Orleans. They were caught on the Ohio River and sent back to Fort Hamilton, where a court martial sentenced three to be hung, two to run the gauntlet, and the remaining two to lie in irons in the guard-house. Immediately after the sentence had been pronounced on these men, a friend hastened to Fort Washington to inform General Wilkinson, who issued a pardon for the condemned men. Rudolph pressed on, however and the messenger from Wilkinson arrived at Fort Hamilton a mere fifteen minutes after the men had been hanged.
“They were all young men of spirit and handsome in appearance, in the opening bloom of life, with their long hair floating over their shoulders,” according to an account of the event in Henry Howe’s Historical Collections of Ohio. One of them was a man named John Brown, said to have come from a respectable family near Albany, New York, who joined the army after having his heart broken. “When under the gallows, the sergeant, acting as executioner, inquired why the sentence of law should not be enforced upon him, he replied with emphasis, pointing to Major Rudolph, ‘that he had rather die nine hundred deaths than be subject to the command of such a man,’ and was swung off without a murmur.”
Another was named Seth Blinn, also from a respectable New York family, whose execution was a botched job. “The rope being awkwardly fastened around his neck, he struggled greatly. Three times he raised his feet until they came in contact with the upper part of the gallows, when the exertion broke his neck.”
The two other deserters were sentenced to run the gauntlet sixteen times between two ranks of soldiers. “The lines were formed in the rising ground east of the fort, where now lies Front Street,” according to the 1882 History of Butler County, and extended from about where Market Street is not to Ludlow Street. “One of them, named Roberts, having passed eight times through the ranks, fell, and was unable to proceed. The attendant physician stated that he could stand it no longer, as his life bad already been endangered.”
After General Anthony Wayne relieved Wilkinson of his command, he went on to become a conspirator with Aaron Burr, the first governor of the Louisiana Territory, survived an 1811 court martial and remained in the army to serve in the War of 1812. Afterward appointed U.S. Envoy to Mexico, he resumed his nefarious activities with Spain. His reputation did not improve even after his death. Historians consider many of his activities as treasonous, and Theodore Roosevelt condemned him thus: “In all of our history, there has never been a more despicable character.”
Commanders of Fort Hamilton
General Anthony Wayne
General Anthony Wayne
After generals Hamar and St. Clair suffered resounding defeats at the hands of the Indians, it appeared that the campaign wasn’t going well for the new republic, and President George Washington was in desperate need of leadership.
Although General Anthony Wayne’s military career was somewhat checkered and after the war he was ousted from Congress because he failed to take up residence in the Georgia district that had given him a farm for his effort in chasing away the natives and elected him as a representative, Washington’s other options were scarcely any better. After St. Clair’s resignation, command of the Northwest Army fell to General James Wilkinson, whom history generally remembers as a “despicable character,” probably guilty of treason, and Captain Rudolph, who was in charge of Fort Hamilton was conspicuously cruel if not incompetent as an officer.
So Washington appointed Wilkinson’s chief rival General Anthony Wayne as commander-in-chief and ordered him to raise an army of 5,000 men to put an end to the conflicts with the Indians once and for all.
General Wayne had been given the moniker “Mad Anthony” by one of his spies who was also a chronic deserter and deemed the general “mad” when he refused to get him out of a disorderly conduct charge. The nickname was popularized by the novelist Washington Irving after the Revolutionary War had ended.
General Wayne, born in Chester County, Pennsylvania, in 1745, was the son of an Irishman, who served as officer in the various military expeditions which were fitted out against the Indians after he came here in 1722. Originally a surveyor by trade and working as a tanner with his father, Anthony Wayne joined the Continental Army in 1776 and rose to the rank of Brigadier General so quickly that he suffered the resentment of fellow officers, but was one of Washington’s favorites and helped foil Benedict Arnold’s treasonous plot. At Stony Point, he received a head wound that was deemed mortal, but he recovered quickly enough to help drive the British from Georgia.
Rocky as his military career had been, he fared even less well in civilian life. Between 1783 and 1792, he failed as a rice farmer, and personal debts forced foreclosure on his property in Georgia.
In the summer of 1792, Wayne began raising the 5,000 men that Washington asked for, and on April 30, 1793, Wayne arrived at Fort Washington.
While he set about the arduous task of drilling and training his new troops, General Wayne directed that Fort Hamilton focus on the production of hay for the army’s horses, as important then as gasoline and diesel fuel are today, and Wayne felt that the downfall of his predecessors could be blamed, at least in part, on the lack of fuel.
The haymaking took place on the large prairie to the south of the fort, the part of Hamilton known today as Peck’s Addition.
In the fall of 1793, Wayne and his army set out for the north to meet the enemy in the fall.
When General Wayne arrived at Fort Hamilton with his Army on its way to the Battle of Fallen Timbers, he was so much displeased with the cruelty of Major Rudolph, that he he make Wilkinson commandant and gave Rudolph his choice to resign or be cashiered.
Rudolph chose the former, returned to Virginia, found that his wife had been unfaithful. So he purchased a ship and went on a trading voyage to Europe. It is said they were captured by an Algerine cruiser, and Rudolph was hung at the yardarm of his own vessel.
But desertion remained a problem at Fort Hamilton. While General Wilkinson commanded the fort, three soldiers were tried, found guilty and sentenced to be shot. According to the 1882 county history says Mrs. Wilkinson, then residing at the fort, convinced her husband to pardon the doomed men. He set out to do so, but General Wayne ordered preparations for the executions and the deserters before the troops.
"But, while the sentence of the court martial was being read by the adjutant, General Wayne rode up and stopped the proceedings." Then Wayne added a stem warning “in a loud, clear and emphatic manner... But the first man, and every man, who shall hereafter be found guilty of the crime of desertion shall surely die, so help me God."
To further reduce the stress of desertion, Wayne also established a $40 reward for the return of deserters, a respectable incentive for soldiers earning a meager $3 a month.
That summer General Wayne ordered addition to be made to Fort Hamilton, by inclosing with pickets an area of ground on the north of the fort for shops, stables, and barracks for the men.
On leaving Fort Hamilton, General Wayne detailed a body of men for its defense and gave command to Major Jonathan Cass, another “brave officer of the Revolution.”
Major Cass was born in 1753 near Newburyport, New Hampshire. When the news reached there of the battle of Lexington, he and a half-dozen friends set off at once, musket in hand, to join the army. He fought at Bunker Hill, Trenton, Princeton, Germantown, Monmouth, and Saratoga, remaining in the army until the close of the Revolution, then resigned his commission and engaged in the West India trade. After St. Clair’s defeat, he recommissioned into the army.
According to the 1882 history, “The personal presence of Major Cass was most striking and commanding; he had the look of one born to command. In height he was nearly or quite six feet, of perfect form, without superfluous flesh, black hair and piercing black eyes, and commanding brow.”
After stints in Virginia and Pennsylvania, in the fall of 1793, and brought his family with him.
While at Fort Hamilton and out on a reconnoitering mission, his horse tripped while jumping over a fallen tree and the Major’s leg broke just below the knee. “In consequence of bad surgery, the wounded leg never healed, and required daily dressing for about 35 years, and was painful all that period.”
Major Cass remained in command of Fort Hamilton until after the treaty of Greenville, August 3, 1795. By that time, Israel Ludlow had laid out the town of Fairfield outside the walls of the fort and the settlement that started taking shape was re-named Hamilton.
Hamilton's First Citizens
When we think of Hamilton’s past, we tend to focus on the great industrial period, when the canal and the hydraulic system turned the city into a bustling center of manufacturing and commerce.
But Hamilton was first a frontier town, growing up from the remnants of the fort that supplied the campaign against the Native Americans of the region.
Apart from the military correspondence relating to activities at the fort, the earliest written accounts of life in Hamilton comes from pen of Dr. Daniel Drake of Cincinnati.
Dr. Drake was born 1785 in New Jersey, and moved to Kentucky with his family as a toddler. By age 13, he was studying medicine in Cincinnati and in 1805 received the first medical diploma west of the Appalachian Mountains. After practicing and studying in Philadelphia and Kentucky from 1805 to 1807, he returned to Cincinnati, where in addition to practicing medicine and helping found the Ohio Medical College, he was a prolific author of many books and articles, including “Natural and Statistical View or Picture of Cincinnati and the Miami Country” in 1815. The 250-page volume is a sort of travelogue focusing on the geography and natural resources of the area.
The Great Miami River naturally plays an early and large role in his narrative as it “glides through a tract finely diversified with prairie and woodland... The Great Miami traverses [Butler County] diagonally. The soil of the north-east and south-west quarters is said to be generally poor; that of the south-east and north-west fertile."
He then writes that the site of Hamilton, “the seat of justice” of Butler County, “is elevated, extensive, and beautiful; but near it, to the south, is a pond which has contributed much to the injury of health.”
This pond would be located in the area of Peck’s Addition and the Hamilton Campus of Miami University. In his Pioneer Biographies, James McBride writes that in the days of the fort, “all the level bottom between the pond and the Miami River was then a beautiful natural prairie covered with a luxuriant growth of grass.”
Within the next twenty or thirty years after Drake’s travelogue, John Woods, the owner of the property, would have the pond drained under the direction of engineer John W. Irwin to make the land more habitable and reduce the incidence of malaria.
In 1815, Drake reports, there were about seventy homes in Hamilton.
"This town was laid off about the year 1794 [by Israel Ludlow], and incorporated in 1810. The donations for public use are a square near the center of the village, for county purposes, and another for a church and cemetery. It’s only public building is a stone jail. It has a post-office, an office for the collection of taxes on non-residents' lands in the western part of the State, and a printing-office, which issues a newspaper called the Miami Intelligencer.”
Uncultivated land in the Miami country sold at about $12 an acre and $20 to $40 an acre in the villages, Drake said, compared to $50 to $150 per acre for unimproved land in Cincinnati.
“The agriculture of this, as of other new countries, is not of the best kind,” Drake writes. “Too much reliance is placed on the extent and fertility of their fields by farmers, who, in general, consider them a substitute for good tillage. They frequently plant double the quantity they can properly cultivate, and thus impoverish their lands and suffer them to become infested with briars and noxious weeds. The preservation of the forests of a country should be an object of attention in every stage of its settlement; and it would be good policy to clear and plant no more land in a new country than can be well cultivated.
While timber was abundant in the area, Drake opines, “Experience has shown that the timber of the Western country is softer, weaker, and less durable than that of the Atlantic States; which is no doubt owing to its more rapid growth in a fertile, calcareous soil and humid atmosphere.”
Drake includes in his description an inventory of the dozens of species of trees found in the area as well as a calendar of their flowering and fruiting.
According to “A History and Biographical Cyclopaedia of Butler County,” published in 1882, the early pioneers of Hamilton “were of a hardier and more self-reliant class than those who followed. They lived largely by the hunt; consequently, they were expert in the use of firearms. They began life anew in a dense wilderness filled with gigantic trees, and, therefore, were skilled in handling an ax.
“Roads and bridges there were none, so that a close observation of the bark of trees, the stars, the breaking of twigs and bushes, and the position of trees and natural objects, was necessary to enable them to find their way from one house to another.”
Because of the “wild beasts” and Indians, the pioneers were necessarily “vigilant and brave” in addition to being good farmers and timber handlers.
“They made shoes, tanned their own leather, constructed their own household implements, and were obliged to teach their children, unaided by pedagogue or preacher. They were a strong, hardy race.”
More early, flowery descriptions of the area came from Joel Barlow, a representative of the Scioto Company who drew up a pamphlet that was “liberally distributed in Paris,” according to the 1882 volumn.
"A climate wholesome and delightful, frost even in winter almost entirely unknown, and a river called, by way of eminence, the Beautiful, and abounding in excellent fish of vast size; noble forests, consisting of trees that spontaneously produce sugar [sugar maple], and a plant that yields ready-made candles [wax myrtle]; venison in plenty, the pursuit of which is uninterrupted by wolves, foxes, lions, or tigers. A couple of swine would multiply themselves a hundred-fold in two or three years without taking any care of them. No taxes to pay; no military services to be performed."
Exaggerated, to be sure, but similar stories were published and told about the lands in the Miami Valley all along the East Coast. In addition to the men from the St. Clair and Wayne armies who were the first residents of Hamilton, much of the land in the Great Miami Valley was sold to speculators from New Jersey, New York, and Philadelphia, hence the surrounding towns with names familiar to those regions, such as Trenton and Princeton, though few of them (including Judge John Cleves Symmes himself) never stepped foot in Hamilton or Butler County.
Once roads were built to accommodate covered wagons and drives of cattle and horses, people began flocking to the area from Pittsburgh and other towns along the Ohio River where families would buy simple flat-bottomed boats that could hold six to eight tons of goods. Although by this time, the first decades following the Battle of Fallen Timbers and the Treaty of Greenville, which mostly rid the region of the native population, there were still plenty of dangers in the journey.
“There were stretches of twenty or thirty miles without a single house,” the 1882 history tells us. “The crack of a rifle might at any moment be heard, striking down the head of a family or wounding some woman or child, and causing dismay and sorrow to those who survived. By night and by day the river bank must be watched. The boat must be pushed away from sand-bars, and steered so as to avoid contact with snags.”
These travelers, having purchased land from the Symmes company or received a land grant the United States government, would sell their boat in Cincinnati and proceed overland to Hamilton, a journey of two or three days in good weather.
Upon arriving to their new home in the Great Miami River Valley and surrounding hills, their first task would be to clear the land of the dense forest that covered it.
“To fell the trees was a colossal undertaking. Many of them were three or four feet in diameter, and some much exceeded these figures. The spot for the cabin was usually picked out from its contiguity to a spring... The axes rang merrily out, and one after another the monarchs of the forest fell.”
In those very early days before the canal and the railroads and the great Interstate highway system, families had to be self-sufficient and self-sustaining.
“It was difficult to get anything from market, and it was still more difficult to take it thither... Flax was made into cloth at his own house; so was wool changed from the back of a sheep to a regularly woven fabric. This was, of course, when sheep could be kept; wolves and bears often made it impossible.
“For the first score of years after the treaty of Greenville the hunting of wild animals formed an essential portion of the pioneer's livelihood. Deer and raccoons, foxes and wolves, opossums and squirrels abounded.”
Guardian Of the People
Guardian Of the People
When John Reily arrived in Hamilton in 1803, the fort had been abandoned for eight years, but traces of it remained.
Israel Ludlow had purchased the land around the fort from John Cleves Symmes (the original Judge Symmes, not his nephew, known as Capt. Symmes, the author of the Hollow Earth Theory). Ludlow, who had previously surveyed Cincinnati, laid plans for a town he dubbed Fairfield in December 1794. When the fort was abandoned, so was the name, and the town took the name of the fort.
A few of the original pickets were still embedded in the ground when Reily arrived to become the clerk of courts for newly-formed Butler County, but most had been repurposed, and Reily would have been able to see a clear outline of its former boundaries as a scar on the land, leaving a clear outline of its former boundaries running alongside the Great Miami River to about where Market Street presently is, along Front Street to the other side of Court Street and back to the river. Ludlow had not laid out the land inside the former fort. That would not be done until 1817.
A public well and a few garrison buildings remained inside the old fort, however, one being used as a tavern, others as courthouse and jail. The former officer’s quarters, a two-story frame house on High Street just east of the fort’s eastern scar, was in 1803 William McClellan’s tavern. Just north of it, extending from near the river to the east line of the pickets, was a row of stables built of stripped hickory logs, originally used for the horses of the officers and the cavalry, now served the growing town’s already burgeoning tavern trade. John Torrence had a tavern at the corner of Dayton Street and Water Street. Isaac Stanley kept the Black Horse tavern in an old log house on Front Street. He would later serve many years as the elected justice of the peace and keep his office in the barroom, dispensing justice along with the whiskey.
In 1803, there still would have been a natural secondary terrace of the riverbank that ran along Second Street, just south of the block assigned to be the public square, where the Butler County Courthouse now stands. That square had been the burying ground for the fort, and workers excavating the ground for High Street and leveling out the terrace for the public square had to relocate these remains. As late as 1812, there was a fence around a grave in the middle of High Street near Second.
Surrounding the graveyard/public square was a thick forest of oak trees with “an almost impenetrable undergrowth of hazel bushes and wild vines,” according to pioneer biographer James McBride. “The upper part of the town, north of Dayton street, was a beautiful natural prairie.”
The earliest census of Hamilton in 1810 put the population at 210, but in 1803 may have been but a few dozen, and most of those must have been living rough as McBride notes that “few houses had been erected,” and what was there, he described as “dilapidated” already.
“The inhabitants of Hamilton, when Mr. Reily went there, were few in number, and composed chiefly of soldiers and other persons who had been attached to Wayne’s army, and had remained there when that army was disbanded at the close of the campaign,” McBride said. “These persons lacking energy and enterprise, spoiled for pioneer work, by military camp life, and in many cases dissipated and immoral, were not the class of citizens best calculated to promote the rapid improvement of the place.”
John Reily, forty years old when he landed in Hamilton, had been a founding member of Cincinnati’s board of trustees and a clerk of courts in Hamilton County. He had come to the newly-formed Butler County to take up the clerk of court’s position here for the Court of Common Pleas, which organized the county into townships and set the date for the first elections at a meeting in May. He would hold this job until 1840, his seventy-seventh year, when he declined another appointment.
Reily established his office in a former shop just south of the pickets. He lived upstairs. He purchased a large parcel of land from Ludlow, established a farm and built a home just east of the public square on the corner of High and Second Streets, now the site of the Rentschler Building. He moved his office there, too.
In 1809, Mr. Reily removed his office to the south room of his just-completed residence, east of the public square, where it remained till 1824, when the present court-house buildings were completed.
Reily also served as the first recorder of Butler County (1803-11), clerk of the county commissioners (1803 to 1819), postmaster (1804 to 1832), and president of the board of trustees for Miami University (1809 to 1924) and a trustee until 1840, all the while maintaining a private practice of maintaining properties for non-resident property owners. By all accounts, Reily was extremely efficient in his offices. There was never any waiting around for him to locate a document in his charge.
McBride wrote, “Reily watched over the financial affairs of the county with such wisdom and success, that at no time were county orders at a discount; nor did it become necessary to contract an onerous debt or subject the people to unreasonable taxes. He was, in fact, as he was often called, the guardian of the people of Butler county.”
Given this sterling reputation as an administrator and bureaucrat known in Hamilton for his “delicate and sensitive manner” and for his fastidious dress and exacting manners, one might be surprised to learn that before coming here, John Reily earned early fame as a soldier and Indian fighter.
Born in Chester County, Pennsylvania, April 10, 1763, John Reily was reared on a family farm near the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.
He witnessed battles with the native population early on, including a skirmish between the celebrated chief Cornstalk and Virginia troops when he was 11 years old.
At 17 years old, he joined the Revolutionary Army and served under Major-General Nathaniel Greene, distinguishing himself in campaigns in South Carolina and Georgia, including the hard-fought battle of Eutaw Springs near the of the war. In that battle, Reily’s company advanced too far into the enemy line and found itself surrounded by the British, requiring a supreme effort to break through the line again to rejoin the Southern Division troops.
After 18 months and decorations for bravery and good conduct, he received a discharge under the seal of General Washington and returned to the family farm in Virginia.
He did not stay long. The West beckoned, and he left the farm to seek his fortune in the wilds of Kentucky, where his eldest sister and her husband had moved.
He didn’t care much for the labors of the farm, but was mechanically included and so worked building houses and setting up a shop to manufacture plows and agricultural implements for the other pioneer settlers. Although not formally educated, he began teaching English. He then took a position to establish a school in the settlement of Columbia along the Ohio River, just east of Cincinnati.
Skirmishes with Indians were common, and in addition to helping protect Columbia, Reily also served on volunteer expeditions to aid other settlers, including a particularly tense attack on Dunlap’s Station, where a cadre of about 30 soldiers and pioneers held off at least 300, perhaps as many as 500, Indian attackers lead by the infamous Scotsman renegade Simon Girty.
In early 1792, Reily accompanied volunteers on a foray north to clean up battle field and bury the victims of St. Clair’s Defeat near Fort Jefferson.
In 1793, he left Columbia and tried his hand again at farming on a tract of land seven miles from Cincinnati. His partner, a man named Prior, was killed by Indians, and Reily became disillusioned with farming a third time and eventually took a job as clerk for the Hamilton County court. He not only assisted in setting up Cincinnati’s first city government, but was also appointed to represent Hamilton County at Ohio’s first constitutional convention. His neat and systematic manner of maintaining records, his punctuality and honesty, led to his appointment in Hamilton in 1803.
“During his whole life, in all the multifarious business which he transacted, his veracity and integrity were never called in question,” McBride wrote of Reily. “They were proverbial.”
McBride said he was “plain and unostentatious,” ardent in his friendships, “uniformly cheerful and occasionally animated.”
At the age of eighty-seven, John Reily died quietly in the morning of June 7, 1850. Both the Butler County Common Pleas Court and the second Ohio Constitutional Convention canceled their sessions to eulogize the great man.
His funeral procession to Greenwood Cemetery was the largest yet witnessed in Butler County, including a “great number of venerable white-haired men, who had been the early companions of the old pioneer…”
The Man Who Put Hamilton on the Map
The Man Who Put Hamilton on the Map
Although he never lived in Hamilton, Israel Ludlow established its geography as the founding landowner and pioneer surveyor.
Like John Cleves Symmes, who made the Symmes Purchase and was named judge of the Northwest Territory, and many other early settlers of Butler County, Ludlow was a native of New Jersey, born at his family’s Long Hill Farm in Morristown. The Ludlow family has been part of England’s aristocracy, but fled persecution in 1760 after the restoration of Charles II as a Ludlow was one of the judges who passed the sentence of death on Charles I.
Israel Ludlow was 12 years old when the Revolutionary War broke out and is said to have witnessed some of the fighting that took place on his family’s farm, the blood-soaked memories of which, according to his biographer Henry Benton Teetor, “enkindled” “the ardor of his patriotism.”
After learning the trade of the surveyor and graduating college, he began his journey down the Ohio River to survey the area known as the Seven Ranges in what is now Eastern Ohio, appointed in 1787 by Thomas Hutchinson surveyor-general of the United States, who was assured of his “ability, diligence and integrity.” In the following years he would survey more Ohio land than any of his peers through government appointments, personal commissions, and surveying and platting land he purchased himself.
In 1788, Ludlow reported to Judge Symmes at Limestone, near present-day Maysville, Kentucky, and with three other surveyors proceeded downriver to lay out a town on 640 acres across from the mouth of the Licking River. Surveyor Johnathan Filson named the town Losantiville--a crunching together of Licking (River which fed into the Ohio River from the southern side), so (Latin for “mouth”), anti (Greek for “opposite”), and ville (French for “town”). The other surveyors went out on missions, and Ludlow is credited as the first man to “stretch a chain” in Cincinnati.
In his early 20s, Ludlow was the youngest of the surveyors and at first had no proprietary interest in the territories, but was given one-third ownership in Losantiville after Filson disappeared while out on his first surveying mission up the Great Miami River, presumed killed by Indians. The original lay-out of Losantiville disappeared with him.
The prevailing story is that General Arthur St. Clair disliked the name Losantiville and changed the name to honor the Society of Cincinnatus, an association of officers of the Revolutionary war, of which he was a member, as was Cornelius Ludlow, the surveyor’s father. George Washington was president of the society. Israel Ludlow’s biographer reports that the first time the name “Cincinnati” was written on any legal documents, it was in in Ludlow’s hand when he re-mapped the city after Filson’s disappearance, a full six months before St. Clair’s arrival as Governor of the Northwest Territory. St. Clair did conduct a dedication ceremony and read the official proclamation, but in his diaries and letters, Judge Symmes said he suggested “Cincinnata,” so the real story will never be known.
When Hamilton County was formed in 1790, at the time including current Butler County, Ludlow became county clerk. That same year, he established Ludlow Station near the northern lines of Cincinnati in the vicinity of what’s now known as Cumminsville and built a block house for protection against the Indians. It was from this station that St. Clair organized his army in August 1791 on his way north to meet Little Turtle’s army, and there they returned after their infamous defeat.
In November 1790, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton charged him with surveying the Symmes Purchase to find the exact boundaries, promising a military escort to protect Ludlow and his assistants from the hostile natives of the region. But when he arrived at Fort Washington, General Joshiah Harmar, commander of the Northwest Territory forces, told him the military posts on the western frontier had no soldiers to spare. Ludlow hired “three active woodsmen,” according to his report to Hamilton, as scouts and spies. Still, he had a number of close calls and was at times forced to interrupt his progress to seek safety.
After the Greenville Treaty in 1795, he received a further appointment from the federal government to survey the boundary between the United States and Indian Territory.
On July 27, 1795, Ludlow purchased a section from General Jonathan Dayton that included the land around Fort Hamilton. He laid out the first streets just outside of the fort and named the town Fairfield, though it was changed to Hamilton after the fort was abandoned to carry on the name.
His plat laid out Front, Second, Third, and Fourth streets. It’s speculated that he did not name Water Street (now Monument Avenue), as was conventional in river towns to name the street along the river, because it would have been on land occupied by the fort. When the state carved Butler County out of Hamilton County after statehood in 1803, Ludlow donated a square for a county courthouse, donated $4,200 to build a courthouse, and set aside another square for a church and cemetery at the edge of town on Fourth Street, now known as Symmes Park, to win the bid to become the county seat.
In partnership with Generals St. Clair, Dayton and Wilkinson, he also founded and laid out the city of Dayton.
In 1796, he returned to Philadelphia to file his reports, stopping at the home of General James Chambers Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. On his way back to Cincinnati, he paused long enough to marry the general’s daughter Charlotte, November 10, 1796, and took her to Cincinnati.
Upon his return, he built the largest and first frame house in Cincinnati near the Ludlow station blockade. He and his young wife became prominent citizens, raising subscriptions for the first church in Cincinnati, among other distinctions. Although as a surveyor and land speculator he was absent a good deal of the time, he frequently brought his wife and growing family when going to Hamilton for business.
In January 1804, he fell ill at the mansion and died four days later. He was just 38 years old. His four children were all under the age of seven. Judge John Cleve Symmes gave his memorial address at the church he helped charter. Nearly a century later, his remains were moved to nearby Spring Grove Cemetery.
After his death, his business affairs in Hamilton continued and carried on by his wife and, later on, his sons and other descendants, including a dentist who practiced on High Street.
In the late 1850s, author Henry Howe made the first of several passes through Butler County collecting information for an encyclopedia of the State of Ohio.
He made it a point to visit James McBride, one of Hamilton’s most accomplished citizens.
“He was a silent, modest man,” Howe wrote in a later edition of his tome, “avoiding public gatherings and all display, of sterling integrity, and charitable to a fault… I was impressed by the beautiful modesty of the man, and the guileless, trustful expression of his face as he looked up at me from his writings.”
Much has been written in local history books about the accomplishments of James McBride, and his presence is felt today at the Butler County Historical Society, which displays his writing desk, and the Butler County Engineer’s office, which displays his surveying equipment.
The blue-eyed grandson of Scottish immigrants, McBride was born in 1788 in Greencastle, Pennsylvania. His father was killed by Indians a year later while surveying land near Lexington, Kentucky. The young McBride was a quiet, studious, self-educated youth who knew French, Latin, and Greek, and while still in his teens earned money teaching Greencastle children.
Through a friend, he met James Findlay, a Cincinnati pioneer and owner of the land now occupied by Findlay Market. Findlay’s hometown was nearby Mercersberg. Findlay must have filled the young man’s head with tales of unbounded opportunity in the Northwest Territories, for McBride walked thirteen miles to Hagerstown, Maryland, sold a book manuscript to fund a trip west.
Findlay referred McBride to John Reily, who had left Cincinnati for the rugged frontier of Hamilton, where he was Clerk of Courts and owned a farm on the block now occupied by the Rentschler Building and the Robinson-Schwenn Building. In fact, Journal Square was originally Reily Street, a shortcut through the Reily farm.
McBride was but 18 years old when he arrived in Hamilton in 1807, and Reily gave him a job in the Clerk of Courts office.
“In Hamilton at that time, nearly all east of Front Street was an impenetrable thicket covered with scrubby oaks, blackjacks, vines and hazel bushes, only in some parts that man could make his way through,” McBride would later write. “The improvements in Rossville were still fewer than in Hamilton. A log house, near where the west end of the bridge now is, was occupied as a tavern and a ferry. Michael Delorac’s house in the upper part of town, and one or two log buildings in the lower part, comprehended the extent of improvement. Brushwood, elder bushes and high weeds occupied the remaining parts of town.”
He worked in the Reily office for a few years before entering into a business arrangement with Joseph Hough, transporting flour, whiskey, and other goods down to New Orleans. It was War of 1812 time, and McBride apparently made enough money from that venture to place him in “easy circumstances,” according to one biographer.
But the industrious young Scotsman did not take it easy. Not at all. He used the proceeds to launch both an entrepreneurial career and a lifetime of public service.
In 1813, at 25 years old, he was elected Butler County Sheriff. While holding that office, he met and married Hannah Lytle, daughter of a Milford Township judge. They settled on property between modern-day Monument Avenue and Front Street and reared five children, three boys and two girls.
He held many public offices through the years, including mayor of Hamilton and Clerk of Courts, but seemed to have a part in just about everything that helped Hamilton and Butler County grow into an industrial powerhouse.
McBride bought the first printing press to be shipped to Hamilton in 1814 as part owner of the Hamilton Miami Intelligencer. In 1816, he was a stockholder in the first bridge to join Rossville and Hamilton. He took part in creating the laws regarding the Miami Erie Canal and in the surveying of the land, reportedly walking between Cincinnati and Lake Erie “many times over.” He was likewise instrumental in developing the Hamilton Hydraulic, a local canal that powered mills and factories in the northeast part of the city.
McBride served on the founding boards of the Hamilton-Rossville Library Association (now the Lane Libraries) and the Greenwood Cemetery Association, the Historical and Philosophical Society of Ohio, and was affiliated with Miami University from its origin until his death, at which time he was president of the Board of Trustees.
McBride created the first map of Butler County in 1836, a five-foot-by-four-foot copperplate showing every stream, spring, pond, school, orchard, and farm, detailing the names of the farmers in his distinctive cursive hand. This endeavor inspired an interest in archeology, and McBride’s three decades of research resulted in a large collection of Native American artifacts, field notes, and maps detailing the locations of earthworks and other aboriginal sites in the Miami Valley, including 221 mounds in Butler County alone.
All the way, he studied. He spoke—or rather, listened to—the founders of the city and took copious notes. He wrote the first history books of Hamilton, Oxford and Miami University, as well as “The Pioneer Biography of Butler County.” By some estimates, he wrote over three thousand pages of manuscript regarding Hamilton, Butler County, and Indian archaeology.
He actively collected books, amassing a library of over 5,000 volumes, and was said to have kept every pamphlet that reached him. Much of this collection has been destroyed, though history doesn’t seem to know the circumstances of that loss, other than to remark that it is “incalculable to the student of Western history.”
For all his wisdom and acquired knowledge, however, he was also a champion of John Cleves Symmes Jr.’s cockamamie “Hollow Earth Theory,” even wrote the book on it, “Symmes’s Theory of Concentric Spheres Demonstrating that the Earth is Hollow, Habitable Within, and Widely Open About the Poles.” It should be noted, however, that he wrote the book as a gift to his friend Symmes, pointedly took no part in seeking its anonymous publication, and all proceeds benefitted Captain Symmes.
Amid this life-long flurry of activity and scholarly accomplishment, it shouldn’t be forgotten that James McBride was a devoted family man. When his beloved wife Hannah died on September 23, 1859, McBride “instantly lost all interest in life” and began looking forward to his own departure.
“From that moment on he lost all desire to live,” Howe wrote in language quite florid for an encyclopedia, “and prepared to follow her, which he did ten days later—a beautiful sunset to a beautiful life, and then the stars came out in their glory.”
Pioneer and Governor
Pioneer and Governor
The first of the many distinctions of William Bebb, who is memorialized by a park bearing his name in Morgan Township, is that he was the first white child born in Ohio west of the Great Miami River.
His father, Edward Bebb, was Welsh by birth, descended from a community of French Huguenots, religious refugees who fled France in the late 17th century, descendents of a weaver whose name was “Bieb” in France and “Beeb” in Wales. Edward Bebb and his friend Ezekial Hughes, who was betrothed to his sister, left the isle in 1795 and made a beeline to the Ohio River valley, paying $2 an acre for a 320 acres along a stream named Paddy’s Run. After staking his claim, Edward Bebb walked to Philadelphia and married a young Welsh widow whose husband had died on the voyage to American. Returning to Ohio, they built a log cabin, and on December 8, 1802, William Bebb was born in it, the first of their three children. It is this relocated cabin that serves as the centerpiece of the Governor Bebb Park Pioneer Village.
There being no school in that remote part of the world, William Bebb’s first teacher was his mother, who taught him both Welsh and English, but he also tutored under David Lloyd, a well-educated member of the Paddy’s Run community.
An 1846 campaign biography painted a thoroughly Lincoln-esque portrait of the young pioneer and his family: “Ploughing, sowing, and reaping in summer and attending very common schools in winter; clearing land, rolling logs, splitting rails and building cabins by day, and by night poring over the volumes of a well-selected little joint stock neighboring library.” He developed a particular interest in the career of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Young William began teaching at the age of 20, and for a time lived in the house of William Henry Harrison at North Bend, where he conducted school and married a fellow teacher there, Sarah Shuck, in 1824.
In 1826, Paddy’s Run was able to build a school there and employed the Bebbs as the first teachers. Two years later, they built a boarding school on his father’s farm and called it the Sycamore Grove School, which attracted young boys from good Cincinnati families. One of them, William Dennison, would also grow up to be a governor of Ohio.
While engaged in the management of the school, William also took up the study of law under Hamilton attorney John Woods and Cincinnati attorney V.K. Este, General Harrison’s son-in-law.
In the fall of 1832, he gave his first public address, before the inaugural meeting of the Butler County Agricultural Society. After he passed the bar that December, he joined Woods’s practice in Hamilton and closed down the school. From 1834 to 1840, he joined the John M. Millikin practice.
According to historian Minnie Hite Moody, “William Bebb was a tall man for a Welshman, and of an easy eloquence on the speaking platform. He was... ‘dark Welsh,’ which means of complexion, black eyes, and hair as straight and black as an Indian.”
His skill at public speaking and apparent ability to cry on demand helped make him a success with the juries he faced, and by 1835 he was making anti-slavery speeches.
The young lawyer became an active Whig and stumped for Harrison and Tyler, was a delegate to the convention that nominated Henry Clay in 1844. Two years later, he earned his party’s nomination to run for governor, which he did and won. He was Ohio’s 14th governor, only the third native-born.
After his term, he retired from politics and moved to a five thousand acre farm he had purchased near Rockford, Illinois. Here, he earned another distinction as being the only governor of Ohio to stand trial for murder.
In 1858, his son got married on the Rockford farm, and a group of his friends gathered on the lawn for a charivari, loudly singing and banging on pots and pans. The Governor was annoyed at the boisterousness of the crowd, and after firing a shot in the air, fired one into the celebrators, fatally injuring one.
He was charged with manslaughter, and the famed Lebanon, Ohio, attorney Thomas Corwin got wind of it and traveled to Illinois, where he is alleged to have remained undercover as he endeared himself to the community of potential jurors, so when he argued that the whole unfortunate episode was an accident, Bebb was acquitted.
Around the same time, he went to his ancestral homeland and recruited new immigrants and helped settle them in a Welsh colony in Scott County, Tennessee, but due to land disputes and title issues, the colony was broken up during the Civil War. Some of the settlers accused Bebb of being “very wicket.”
“I do not and have not seen him fulfilling any of his promises,” wrote John Roberts Jones in 1858, “and it is my studied opinion that he had nothing more in mind when he drew our attention to the land but his own pocket.”
There may be some truth to Bebb’s profit motive, but it seems certain that he was genuinely interested in helping Welsh immigrants start a new life in America. In 1860, he moved to Tennessee himself to help get things in order, but the effort was fruitless, and when he went to Illinois to campaign for Lincoln, he was warned to not return to Tennessee. While he was gone, his Tennessee home was looted and sacked, and with the colony collapsing, he didn’t go back, and lived out his life on his Illinois farm.
He continued to dabble in politics, serving appointments under Lincoln. In 1869 he went on a speechmaking tour on behalf of Ulysses S Grant’s presidential campaign and contracted pneumonia. He never fully recovered and died October 23, 1873, at the age of 71.
The Original Millikin Family
Of thousands of families that have lived in Hamilton, it might be argued that the Millikin name stands out as one of the earliest and most prominent.
Through the decades, several prominent physicians and attorneys have borne the Millikin name, all of them descending from James and Dolly Millikin and four of their sons.
James Millikin was born in 1752 in Antrim County, Ireland, and came to Pennsylvania at the age of 19.
“He separated from his parents, his home, and his friends, and sought the American colonies under the impulse of an adventurous spirit, to seek a home in a new country,” according to the 1882 History of Butler County. “He was not impelled to the movement by the importunities of relatives and friends who had preceded him. His example, however, was followed by his brothers William and Robert, who both lived and died in Greene County, State of Pennsylvania. He had other brothers in Ireland.”
In 1778, he married 16-year-old Dolly McFarland, a native of Bristol County, Massachusetts, “the union of a young, adventurous Protestant Irishman to a simon-pure Massachusetts Yankee girl, which resulted in a prosperous and happy married life and the rearing of a large family,” which included eight sons and one daughter.
The eldest son, Daniel Millikin, was born February 14, 1779 in Washington County, Pennsylvania and attended Jefferson College there, studying languages with an eye toward practicing medicine, which he did and acquired credentials to practice at the age of 22 in Greensboro, Pennsylvania. He became acquainted with the family of Colonel John Minor and his twelve children there and in 1801 married the daughter Joan.
There apparently wasn’t much opportunity for a young physician in that part of Pennsylvania, and the West was calling many young men of the day, so in 1804 he made his way to the “valley of the Miamis” in an exploratory journey. Three years later, along with two of his brothers, John H. and Samuel, “took their departure from their cherished home.”
John H. Millikin located himself in Knox County, Ohio, while Daniel and Samuel made their way to Hamilton, landing here in May 1807, and immediately building log homes for their growing families.
Dr. Daniel Millikin and Joan had a large family, seven sons and five daughters, the first three born in Pennsylvania, the rest in Hamilton. Two of them died young. One of the daughters married into the Symmes family.
Doctoring was hard back then. According to the 1882 history, “The professional career of Dr. Millikin ... was excessively laborious and severe. There was no mode of conveyance save riding on horseback. Doctors had to ride in the intense, hot sun, and were exposed to the cold, the rain, and wintery storms. The roads were frightfully bad for a large portion of the year. As there were but few physicians, Dr. Millikin had a wide range in his practice, not only visiting in all parts of the county, but occasionally receiving calls from adjoining counties... Almost every household contained one or more patients needing medical treatment. Oftentimes the entire family would be prostrate with chills and fever, or with a most malignant case of bilious fever; so that there were not enough well persons in the family competent to answer the pressing calls of the sick.”
Still, “Old Doc Dan” “was of cheerful, genial temperament, and submitted to the hardships and discomforts of his profession with but little complaint. His services were inadequately compensated by those he served. The fees charged and collected were insufficient for the comfortable maintenance of a family. He was unselfish and liberal in his nature, and had apprehensions lest he might demand too much for his services, or call too soon for the miserable pittance that he charged his patients.”
Dr. Millikin also served as a surgeon in the War of 1812, as a trustee of Miami University, represented the county in the Ohio Legislature, and served three terms as an associate judge of the Court of Common Pleas.
His brother Samuel first made his home with his brother after arriving in Hamilton and began studying medicine himself, opening the first drug store in Hamilton. In 1813, he married Mary Hunter and had three children with her. He was elected Butler County Sheriff in 1821 and re-elected in 1823. After partnering up with early Hamilton merchant Joseph Hough, he began conducting business in Vicksburg, Mississippi, but in 1836 moved to Indiana to take up farming, but eventually returned to Hamilton. He died October 7, 1870, at the ripe age of 83 years.
Robert Millikin, the sixth son of James and Dolly and also student of medicine, joined his brothers in Hamilton in 1813, and by the Spring of 1817 been licensed to practice his profession, he had taken unto himself a wife, had commenced housekeeping, and opened an office where he proposed to answer professional calls. He and his wife Sarah Gray, who was connected to many of the pioneer families of that day, had three children. In addition to his medical practice, he opened a drug store in Rossville and served as the Postmaster there until the two cities merged. He was, like his oldest brother, a trustee of Miami University and elected to the state legislature as well as Butler County Treasurer. He died in June 1860, at the age of 66.
Andrew Millikin, the fourth of the sons of James and Dolly, came to Hamilton 1820 or 1821. He first took up the clothier trade, but eventually purchased a farm on Pleasant Run, near Symmes’s corner. He married in 1822 to Adeline Hunter, whose sister was married to his brother Samuel. They had three children, but he died in 1833 on his farm, being the first victim in the county of the cholera epidemic.
Little is known of Abel Millikin, the youngest of the James/Dolly clan. He remained in the original family homestead in Pennsylvania for many years, but sometime after 1850 settled in Hamilton, bringing with him five children.
Railroad Monarch of the West
Railroad Monarch of the West
Hamilton historians have described John Woods as “a giant in intellect as well as in stature.”
His resume is impressive: Prosecutor, congressman, newspaper editor, bank president, auditor of the state, founder of the first woman’s academy in Hamilton, and defender of the poor and down-trodden.
James McBride said it was John Woods who “projected” the Hamilton and Rossville hydraulic and started a railroad to run between Hamilton and Cincinnati, the latter feat earning him the nickname “The Railroad Monarch of the West.”
“It would be impossible in a short sketch to note all of his activities,” noted Alta Harvey Heiser in a 1949 newspaper column, “but for thirty-five years, he did the work of a superman.”
Like many of Hamilton’s early pioneers, he was not born here, but in Jonestown, Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, in October 1794, four years after his father immigrated from county Tyrone, Ireland. By 1797, the Woods family had settled in what is now Warren County, Ohio, where Alexander Woods, his father, built a log cabin in the thick forest.
Young John received a modest education in the common schools and worked his father’s farm until he was drafted into the Ohio militia in 1814. He was in the garrison at Fort Meigs when the War of 1812 ended. He then opened a school in Springboro, which he ran for two years before he began clearing a piece of ground next to his father’s. After a day of chopping heavy timber, he would retire to a hut he’d built on the property and began his study of law in the evenings, traveling to Lebanon once a week to study under John McLean, who would later serve as a U.S. Congressman and associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
In 1919, he was admitted to the bar and established his practice in Hamilton in August. He would later say that he felt overwhelmed as he argued against some of the sharpest legal minds in Cincinnati and Lebanon, but he must have made a favorable impression, at least at the local level, as the following year he was appointed prosecuting attorney for Butler County. He held the office until 1925 when he resigned to take a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. He beat the incumbent Thomas R. Ross of Lebanon.
“He was decided and ardent in politics as he was in everything else,” wrote James McBride about him in this time. Woods served in that body with distinction, working on laws that helped bring the canal to Butler County and in Indian affairs. He opposed the election of Andrew Jackson to the presidency, an unpopular stance back home which cost him a third term. When he returned to Hamilton, he purchased the Hamilton Intelligencer in partnership with Lewis D. Campbell and served as editor and publisher of that newspaper while vigorously continuing his law practice.
As a member of the Butler County bar, Woods was “a model for imitation,” McBride wrote, “despising all low and illiberal practice.” He was respectful to the judges and a mentor to any young lawyer seeking to establish himself, and unless he sensed “signs of falsehood or corruption,” was considerate and candid to all.
One anecdote that illustrates the measure of this pioneer is the way he conducted the case of John Sponsler, whom he was appointed to represent in his trial for the murder of his son-in-law. Despite his attorney’s “herculean efforts,” according the Cincinnati Times, Sponsler was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged on Friday, June 10, 1836.
Woods managed to receive a last-minute commutation to a life sentence, but before it could be announced an immense crowd – “filled to the muzzle with fighting whisky” -- had gathered to witness the first man to be hanged in Butler County. When the mob heard that the execution had been called off, they threatened to storm the jail, at the time a flimsy structure at the rear of the courthouse. Sheriff William Sheeley and an ad hoc group of deputies successfully defended the jail and the prisoner, but Sponsler was so spooked by the ordeal that he committed suicide by cutting his own throat before he could be transferred to Columbus to serve his sentence.
The rowdy mob scene and the pathetic suicide so disgusted John Woods that he vowed that so long as he lived, there should never be a man hung in Butler County. True to his word, there wasn’t to be a hanging until a decade after Woods had expired, when John Griffin was executed in 1869.
In 1845, the Ohio legislature elected John Woods to state auditor, and he in turn urged that body to enact tax reform. The state had been borrowing money to pay interest on its debt, and then as now, tax reform was a much-dreaded subject. Nevertheless, through Woods’s “courage, industry and perseverance,” according to McBride, he saved the state from bankruptcy.
He longed to return to Hamilton after his first three-year term expired but allowed himself to be persuaded into a second term, so he did not return home until 1851, when he took up the important work of bringing the railroad to Hamilton, arguably one of his greatest achievements.
Railroad meetings were held at the Butler County Courthouse as early as 1837. Woods addressed the first meeting about the possibility of a railroad from Oxford the Hamilton Basin, a section of the Miami-Erie Canal that jutted into the industrial portion of the city along the Four Mile Creek. Woods and two other men set about selling stock subscriptions, but nothing came of that effort, and matters dragged along until 1945. By that time, the wheels were turning on the Hamilton Hydraulic – an effort also headed by Woods along with L.D. Campbell and future Ohio Governor William Bebb -- and the need for a railroad to Cincinnati became foremost. A stagecoach took three hours to get to Cincinnati, the canal even longer, but a railroad could make the trip in an hour.
By this time, Woods was in Columbus as state auditor, returning to Hamilton for important meetings and leaving day-to-day efforts to Bebb and Campbell. Then Bebb became governor and Campbell becoming the local point man. The following year, the Cincinnati & Hamilton Rail Road received its charter with Campbell as the first president, but most of the money came from Cincinnati subscribers. It was through Woods’s influence that the influential men of Dayton got on board, and the project became the CH&D. Both Bebb and Woods donated some of their property for the lines to be constructed.
“These men had vision,” Heiser wrote, specifically referring to Bebb and Woods. “Although they must have hoped to eventually profit from their investments in turnpikes, the hydraulic and railroads, they also must have known that they were working for posterity rather than themselves. Neither one cared for public office, but they allowed themselves to be ‘drafted’ for the opportunity it gave them to help with public works.”
Sadly, John Woods did not live to see the vast impact the CH&D Rail Road would have on Hamilton’s prosperity. In July 1855, Woods contracted a lung infection. He rallied briefly mid-month, but the infection was complicated by typhoid fever and ulcerations on the bowels. On July 30, in his sixty-first year, “a useful and well-spent life,” according to McBride, ended, and the body of John Woods was sent to Greenwood Cemetery for a final rest.
The Hamilton Man Who Built California
The Hamilton Man Who Built California
Lucky Baldwin was one of the most colorful characters to ever emerge from Butler County pioneer stock.
Born Elias Jackson Baldwin in a log cabin near Millville in 1828, he became one of California’s most powerful and despised characters. An entrepreneur, speculator, and gambler, he made a fortune in real estate and horse racing, consorted with the likes of Wyatt Earp and San Francisco neighborhoods and Lake Tahoe beaches still bear his name.
In a 1929 feature story in the Hamilton Evening Journal after his death, he was described “the man into whose life story is written not a single dull moment or not a single uninteresting incident; the man who more than any other individual, put California on the map and kept it there.”
“My grandfather Baldwin came here when there were but three or four log cabins,” he told a Hamilton Daily News reporter in 1895 when he came to Cincinnati to race his horses at the Latonia Race Track in Northern Kentucky. “He helped build and defend the first block house in Hamilton.”
The family homestead was near Bunker Hill, and he spent the early days of his life as a typical farm boy in the vicinity of Millville. He married young and set about the business of training horses, but he and his wife Sarah Ann left Millville in 1850 to try and find a better life. They began to make their way West, pausing in Valparaiso, Indiana, where they ran a saloon and grocery store, and Racine, Wisconsin, where they got the idea to profit from the California Gold Rush, not as prospectors but as suppliers. They loaded four wagons with tobacco, brandy, and tea, and with a six-year-old daughter in tow, joined a wagon train in Iowa for the five-month trek west.
On the way, it is said he went ahead to scout for the wagon train but got lost, and it was only the assistance of the local natives that allowed him to rejoin his family. Most of the encounters with the locals were not so beneficial, though Baldwin persevered. When they arrived at in the Salt Lake Valley, a huge band of Indians surrounded the train, and it was a fierce hand-to-hand battle between Baldwin and the chief that ended the ordeal. So the story goes, anyway, as much of Baldwin’s bio comes across sounding mythical as well as legendary.
It was a rough journey, but they managed to double their money on the trip. In Salt Lake City, he sold the brandy to Brigham Young’s brother and traded the rest of their supplies for horses, which they sold in California for enough profit to buy a hotel, which he sold 30 days later and doubled his money. His other speculations included starting a brick factory. He knew nothing of brick manufacturing, but had connections that landed huge government contracts such as the building of the Alcatraz prison and the construction of military installations.
He earned the nickname “Lucky” when he made a deal with a down-and-out prospector, exchanging groceries for a stock in the Ophir gold mine. Less than a month later, the Comstock lode was discovered and Baldwin began purchasing more and more of the nearby Ophir stock, and with his options and two pistols for support, he was unanimously elected president of the Ophir board. The Ophir vein was uncovered and the stock soared. In less than 48 hours, he netted $7 million.
Lucky then turned his attention to the purchase of real estate and the building of hotels up and down the California coast. His business savvy was legendary. For instance, when he learned that his hotels were paying $2,000 a month for gas, he decided to start his own gas works, where he not only supplied his own properties, but turned a profit providing others. Then he did the same with electricity, water, and wine.
He was known as a tight-fisted and shrewd businessman, but spent lavishly on his own comforts. In 1872, he went East on business and visited the track at Saratoga. He fell in love with one of the horses, Grinstead, bought it and a couple of others, and took them back to California. He founded the Santa Anita race track and began building another fortune in the thoroughbred game.
He was not so lucky in love, however. He divorced his first wife soon after reaching California, and was married three more times, twice to girls as young as 16 years old. One of his paramours, a Miss Lillian Ashley, sued him for $100,000 for breach of promise. The court decided against her, but one day during the trial, her younger sister Emma sat behind him and during Lillian’s cross-examination, Emma rose from her seat and pointed a revolver at the back of Baldwin’s head. The gun had a hard trigger, however, and she lost aim as she fired, the bullet barely missing the top of Baldwin’s head. Baldwin told reporters afterward, “I felt the wind of the bullet lift my hair up and the tingle as the lead flew so closely over my scalp.”
Lucky never stopped, but his luck did run out. In 1899, when gold was discovered in the Klondike, the 71-year-old entrepreneur went north, although by that time, it seemed his luck had run out, and he failed to extract yet another fortune and soon returned to take care of his California interests.
In 1909, he fell ill with the flu at his Santa Anita ranch and seemed to have recovered, but on February 2 suffered “a serious sinking spell” from which he never recovered, dying March 1.
“There were many flowers but few tears” at his funeral, the San Francisco Examiner noted. “Many spectators, but few friends.” But it was the funeral that he planned himself. There were no eulogies, just a slate of classical music that he selected himself. The entire service lasted less than a half-hour.
Lucky Baldwin left a fortune of $25 million. After his funeral, San Francisco Examiner reporter Al Joy wrote “His was the only funeral of a famous man I ever covered where not a sob was heard nor a tear seen.” As one observer remarked, "Baldwin had friends, but they were outnumbered by his enemies."
Lewis D. Campbell
A Politician of Many Parties
A Politician of Many Parties
Lewis D. Campbell, who began his career as a newspaper publisher and attorney in Hamilton, earned national repute in his slippery political career, in which was at various times a Whig, a Know-Nothing, a Republican, and a Democrat.
Campbell was the third child of Mary Small and Samuel Campbell, born August 9, 1811 Franklin, Ohio. After an apprenticeship at the Cincinnati Gazette, he became an assistant editor for a short time. In 1931, he came to the attention of Hamilton attorney and newspaper publisher John Woods, who recruited Campbell to take over the Hamilton Intelligencer, a Whig newspaper that supported Henry Clay. He did and at the same time studied law under Woods, switching careers in 1835 when he passed the bar. The next year, he married Jane Reily, daughter of Hamilton pioneer John Reily, and became active in local business and politics, being a leading force behind the development of the Hamilton hydraulic and the CH&D Railroad, both of which helped Hamilton become an industrial powerhouse.
As a Whig candidate in 1840, he lost the first three consecutive bids for the U.S. House, but finally won a seat in the 31st congress in 1848.
A fellow Congressman, “Honest” John Letcher (D-VA) described Campbell as “intelligent, industrious and efficient, always in place, prompt and well-informed and his business well in hand... He is fearless and manly, incorruptible and of sterling independence of character.”
Campbell quickly earned a reputation in Congress as an able debater and orator. After Senator Stephen Douglas pushed through the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, which effectively repealed the Missouri Compromise and stoked tensions over slavery, Campbell led the opposition in the House. At the end of a contentious thirty-six hour session of debate in May 1854, Campbell was speaking when members started calling for a recess. Campbell replied that he would continue to the bitter end. Weapons were brandished on the House floor and Rep. Henry Edmundson, “well-oiled and well-armed” according to one witness, took off his coat and charged at Campbell, saying he would have the fight now. Campbell took a defensive pose as the sergeant-at-arms rushed forward to subdue Edmundson and escort him out of the chamber. There were a few more moments of pandemonium, but order was soon restored and the session adjourned.
Though Campbell’s opposition was for naught (the bill passed 113-100), he gained national prominence and his name was mentioned as presidential material in newspaper editorials in Ohio and surrounding states.
As the Whig party began falling apart in 1854, Campbell emerged as a leading light of the short-lived “Know Nothing” party, which began as a sort of secret society that was anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, and opposed to slavery. They first called themselves the Order of the American Union, but their oath of secrecy required them, when asked about the group, to claim to “know nothing”. The opposition used the term derogatorily, but they soon embraced it.
“The members of the order took their oaths of office very seriously indeed,” wrote William E. Van Horne in Ohio History Journal, so his exact foray into the movement can only be interpolated, but historians believe that Know-Nothingism came to Ohio in March 1854, and the Democratic Hamilton Telegraph called out Campbell and his brothers as leaders of the movement, which an editorial in the Intelligencer denied. By that October, there were 50,000 Know-Nothings in Ohio. At a convention in Cincinnati in November, the Know-Nothings vowed to control any party that shared their views. Some Know-Nothings, Campbell included, ran under the American party banner. In the 1854 election, the Know-Nothings won 51 seats outright in the House and with 70 sympathetic Republicans and Free Soilers had a solid majority.
“Campbell was riding a wave of popularity,” Van Horne writes. “He was in demand as a speaker not only in every hamlet in his own district but also in support of candidates all over Ohio, Michigan and Indiana... Campbell began to take the presidential talk seriously.”
It could be that Campbell’s ambition got the better of him. A young Cincinnati lawyer and future U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes wrote, “The Presidential mania... makes mad every man who is at all prominent at Washington... It makes fools of all sorts from Webster down to Lew Campbell.”
Nevertheless, in February 1855, Campbell called a secret meeting of Know Nothings that included three powerful newspaper publishers. They called for a state-wide convention to select candidates and create a platform. Campbell undertook a campaign to bring other splinter groups, like the Fusionist and Free Soil parties, the latter being led by the well-regarded Salmon P. Chase. Chase, however, turned him down flat.
Although the Know-Nothing’s prospects fell as rapidly as they rose when they could not agree on a platform, Campbell made a credible run for Speaker of the House by creating a coalition of Know-Nothings, Free Soil Democrats, and Know-Nothing-leaning Republicans. He got 81 of the necessary 113 votes on the second ballot, but the political maneuvering did not serve him well and his support dwindled to 46 votes on the twenty-first ballot. Campbell grudgingly withdrew from the race, and threw his support to Nathaniel Banks of Massachusetts.
When the American party dissolved, Campbell joined the emerging Republican party and ran again for Congress in 1856 against the Democrat Clement Vallandigham. He won with a slim 19-vote margin, and took his seat in Congress, but Vallandigham contested the election and prevailed. Campbell had to give up his seat during the final days of the session. He ran again against Vallandigham in 1858 and lost by one percentage point.
Campbell turned his attention to other matters for the next decade and accepted a presidential appointment to be an envoy to Mexico. He spent a year in the Ohio Senate in 1869 and in 1870 ran for Congress again as a Democrat and won.
He did not seek re-election in 1872 and returned to his farm in Butler County. He died November 26, 1881 and is interred in Greenwood Cemetery.
The Hollow Earth Folly
Captain John Cleves Symmes was not born in Hamilton, but he died here, and because of that our city can boast one of the most bizarre monuments of the American landscape.
The Symmes family descended from Zechariah Symmes, a Canterbury-born Puritan clergyman who emigrated from England, where he was the rector of Harlington, to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1634 with 30 members of his congregation. He became a teaching elder at the church in Charleston, and pastor two years later, a post he held until his death.
Zechariah and his wife Sara had at least 14 children, and three generations later, Timothy Symmes and his wife Mary Cleves migrated to Sussex County, New Jersey, and had three sons: William Symmes, John Cleves Symmes (the judge), and Timothy Symmes III, who named one of his sons after his accomplished older brother, who had no male children of his own. Before the Symmes purchase, Judge Symmes’s resume included serving as a delegate to the Continental Congress, a Colonel in the Revolutionary War, and the Chief Justice of New Jersey, In 1788, he bought from the U.S. Congress over 300,000 acres of land between the Little Miami and Great Miami Rivers, now commonly referred to as the Symmes Purchase.
The naming has caused some confusion through the years, and many newspaper articles in the ensuing centuries (and still many people today) assume that John Cleves Symmes and John Cleves Symmes Jr. were father and son.
A year after the Symmes Purchase, Judge Symmes landed in the area around North Bend and was father-in-law to President William Henry Harrison and grandfather of President Benjamin Harrison. Accompanying him was another nephew from his brother Timothy, Celadon Symmes, who would have been 19 years old at the time. Celadon assisted in the survey of the Symmes Purchase lands and as a reward was given property in what is now Fairfield. Symmes-related place names in the area are mostly in honor of him and his progeny.
In the meantime, J.C. Symmes Jr., born in 1780, joined the U.S. Army in 1802, rose to the rank of captain, served with distinction in the war of 1812, and was honorably discharged in 1815, in spite of his involvement in a duel that left him wounded in the left wrist, which pained him for life.
In 1808, he married a widow with six children and raised them alongside the four they had together, including his oldest, Americus Vespucius Symmes (born 1811).
After the Army, the large and growing large family moved to St. Louis, where Captain Symmes went into business selling supplies to the army and trading with the Indians, and while contemplating the rings of Saturn and enchanted by accounts of the voyages of George Vancouver and other explorers, he came up with the idea that the earth consisted of a series of concentric inhabitable spheres. The openings, he surmised, were at the north and south poles, but had not yet been reached because of the barriers presented by the polar ice caps. Inside the sphere, however, the climate was as temperate, warmed by the sunlight seeping in from the poles and the flow of air.
He first wrote of his theory in letters to a stepson in 1817, and on April 10, 1818 published the first treatise on the matter, a circular titled “Theory of Concentric Spheres, Polar Voids, and Open Poles,” and sent it to every university and scientific journal that he could think of. He put out a call for “one hundred brave companions” to accompany him to Siberia where they would set out with reindeer and sleighs, certain that after traversing the frozen sea they would find “a warm and rich land, stocked with thrifty vegetables and animals if not men.”
Americus would later write: “Its reception by the public could be easily imagined; it was overwhelmed with ridicule as the production of a distempered imagination, or the result of partial insanity. It was for many years a fruitful source of jest for the newspapers... The scientific papers of Europe generally considered it a hoax, rather than believe that any sane man could issue such a circular or uphold such a theory.”
The failure of his business ventures in St. Louis resulted in relocation to Newport, Kentucky, in 1819. The following year, he commenced a series of public lectures on the topic, first in Cincinnati. “The novelty of the subject attracted large audiences,” Americus wrote, “but he failed to make converts who possessed wealth or influence enough to secure the means to test, by exploration, the truth of his theory.”
In May 1824, he lectured in Hamilton, where he met an enthusiastic audience that signed a resolution declaring the theory “deserving of serious examination and worthy of the attention of the American people.” It’s not clear if the two events are connected, but in the same year Captain Symmes made his home in Hamilton on land gifted to him by his namesake uncle.
Hamilton pioneer, attorney, and scholar James McBride that same fall anonymously wrote a 167-page treatise (available for free at archive.org) detailing the theory of the “Symmes Hole.” It is generally stated that McBride was a convert according to Americus’s assessment, but in the introduction he maintains that he only writes the document in order that there may be further study on it, and other comments, as well as his anonymity, suggest that he was not a true believer, but maintained a curiosity on the matter or was otherwise compelled to create the outline.
Captain Symmes’s lecture tour continued through 1826 despite the constant ridicule he received, and he began petitioning the U.S. Congress and various state legislatures to fund exploratory ventures. The rigors of the tour and his nagging duel wounds led to a general decline in his health, and after a long stay with a family friend in New Jersey, summoned up the strength to return to Ohio. From Cincinnati, Americus wrote, he was conveyed on a bed in the back of a spring wagon to Hamilton, where he died May 29, 1829.
Although Captain Symmes died in great debt from the lecture tours and lobbying efforts, Americus was determined to erect a monument to his father’s theory to mark the grave in the city cemetery. In his original plans, he described a three-foot copper sphere, but lack of funding resulted in the carved stone monument that today rests in the 4th Street park.
Americus relocated to Louisville, Kentucky, where he continued efforts to mount an exploratory expedition, but alas, none ever came about.
The Kahn Dynasty
The Estate Stove Company
The Estate Stove Company
One of Hamilton’s greatest industrial dynasties started with a family living in the Alsace village of Ingviller near the border of Germany and France. David and Caroline Kahn were the parents of four boys: Felix, Lazard, Sol, and Sam. Two older children from David’s former marriage had already gone to the New World: Maurice to Brazil and married sister Rosalie to Cincinnati, Ohio.
Felix was the first of the four brothers to leave the home, traveling to Brazil in 1864 to join Maurice in Brazil, but he arrived in the midst of a yellow fever epidemic. “My first days in Brazil were but a prologue to those I was to suffer,” he wrote in his diary. He contracted the disease himself, but was nursed back to health by friends, and eventually joined Maurice in the business of selling jewelry.
In 1870, Felix and Maurice found themselves in Selma, Alabama, in a retail business that included selling a line of stove repair parts and utensils manufactured by Martin Henderson and Company in Hanging Rock, Ohio. A year later, Felix became a traveling salesman for the foundry, owned by men named Thomas Martin and Thomas Henderson, one a salesman and one a molder, who together developed the first stove to be cast in one piece.
Meantime, Lazard began his big adventure, arriving in New York with enough English to count to twenty and only forty francs in his pocket. He learned English quickly, making his way first to Indianapolis and then Iowa, where he peddled lamps--the Sun Burner--from farm to farm without much success. He decided to go to Cincinnati, walking most of the way, where he was offered a job in Nashville, Tennessee, in blacking stoves and then selling them and then managing the company. In 1872, he began working with his brother Felix in Hanging Rock, where Martin and Henderson evidently figured two Kahns were better than one. Indeed, the brothers worked together to sell so many stoves that the under-capitalized company was unable to pay their commissions. They were offered interest in the company in lieu of salaries and by 1876 Felix and Lazard Kahn were listed as joint proprietors. Mr. Martin withdrew and the firm became known as Henderson, Kahn and Company.
They soon financed the immigration of brother Sol, who went to Nashville to join a retail stove establishment, and then to Hanging Rock. Lazard took to the road as a salesman while Felix took to accounting and managing the Cincinnati office and warehouse. Henderson, who by that time had spent forty years at the stove foundry, was confident enough of the brothers’ ability to manage the business that he expressed his desire to retire. The Kahns bought out his interest in the foundry and Sol took over its management in 1882 supervising 82 employees at Hanging Rock.
The Kahn brothers were mightily tested when floods struck the foundry in three successive years. Finally, in the flood of 1884, the entire operation submerged under six feet of water and their patterns buried in mud.
“But the Kahn boys did not know they were beaten,” a family history commissioned by Hamilton Evening Journal publisher Homer Gard reports. They had accounts in the growing city of Hamilton, population 12,500, and acquaintance with the likes of William Beckett and other members of the Hamilton Club, a precursor of the Chamber of Commerce.
With their support, the Kahn brothers founded the Estate Stove Company, named for one of their most popular lines of products, on February 23, 1885. Most of the sixty employees had come from Hanging Rock to cast their lot with the new venture.
East Avenue at that time was a country road at the edge of the city. Felix and Lazard worked alongside the foundry workers in their shirtsleeves in addition to their office duties. They had to because they had sacrificed commissions in order to buy the company and had to borrow $10,000 to make the move to Hamilton. Sol had fallen into ill health and died in 1887, so the next decade was one of slow but sure progress. Felix and Lazard both had growing families by this time and it was foremost in their mind to create a big business for their own sons to take over.
After Sol’s death, Felix and Lazard sent for the fourth brother, Sam, who had come to America in 1882 and was selling shoes in Cincinnati. He was put in charge of the factory and the sales force. “He was highly nervous,” the family would later note, “quick with his tongue, volatile as petrol. He lacked Lazard’s social grace and charm, Felix’s genial, friendly manner, but had a personality all his own that was as commanding and irresistible as that of either of his brothers.” Sam was keen and analytical, and earned the nickname “Whiz Bang.”
Family lore has it that Felix shunned the limelight, totally devoted to home, family, and foundry, while Lazard quickly fell into Hamilton’s civic and social life. He joined the Hamilton Club and became one of its most active members. He closely followed the activities of the city council and the county commission to promote the prosperity of the city at large as well as their own business interests. With the Becketts and Moslers and others, Lazard purchased the Hancock farm and organized the East Hamilton Improvement Association. Lazard also took a special interest in the development of Lindenwald, but also became active in international affairs. By this time he spoke six languages and represented the United States at the Paris world expositions of 1899 and 1900 and the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce in 1914. He was in Austria with his wife and daughter when the war broke out and was trapped in Belgium for several days trying to get back to France.
“What a triumvirate!” their progeny would remark. “Feliz, Lazard and Sam, three brothers, unlike in temperament and talents but bound together by the strongest ties of brotherhood and united for the common purpose of the building of a great industrial institution.”
Felix’s son David and Lazard’s son Bertrand were the first of the next generation to join the company in 1896 and 1900 respectively. Albert, David’s younger brother, made his debut with the company after graduating Cornell University with an engineering degree. In 1911, Bert’s younger brother Lucian came aboard after spending three years in timber and mining in the rugged West. In 1921, Sam’s only son Myron--known as “Mike”-- appeared on the scene after the sudden death of his father, sporting a degree and a year of post-graduate work at the Harvard School of Business Administration
In 1945, the company was sold to the Noma Electric Company, then to RCA in 1952, merged with three other companies including Whirlpool, and ended production in 1961. At its peak, the Estate Stove Company employed over 800 people.
The Hamilton of
William Dean Howells
William Dean Howells
Late in his life, William Dean Howells was known as “the Dean of American Letters,” a well-earned distinction for the author of twenty-five novels, playwright, literary critic, and long-time editor of the Atlantic Monthly. Although the official William Dean Howells House is in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the man whom Mark Twain called “the Boss” spent his childhood in Hamilton. His father was a newspaperman and printer, and from 1840 to 1850 was the publisher of The Intelligencer. It was in his father’s business that Howells began his life of letters, learning to set type when he had to stand on a chair to reach the racks.
“His first attempt in literature,” Howell’s recalled from the third person in his 1890 book A Boy’s Town, “an essay on the vain and disappointing nature of human life, he set up and printed off himself in his sixth or seventh year; and the printing-office was in some sort his home, as well as his school, his university.”
Hamilton was still a frontier town when the Howells family arrived, and by the time they left, the Hydraulic had been built and Hamilton was on its way to becoming an industrial powerhouse, a “Lowell of the West,” referring to the Massachusetts town of cotton mills and canals. A Boy’s Town paints a quaint, nostalgic picture of this city in transition.
It was a four-hour stagecoach ride from Cincinnati to “a very simple little town of some three thousand people,” Howells wrote, “living for the most part in small one-story wooden houses, with here and there a brick house of two stories, and here and there a lingering log-cabin, when my boy's father came to take charge of its Whig newspaper in 1840. It stretched eastward from the river to the Canal-Basin, with the market-house, the county buildings, and the stores and hotels on one street, and a few other stores and taverns scattering off on streets that branched from it to the southward; but all this was a vast metropolis to my boy's fancy, where he might get lost—the sum of all disaster—if he ventured away from the neighborhood of the house where he first lived, on its southwestern border.”
Howells said that the courthouse was the social center of Hamilton, and recalled in vivid detail the clock in its tower and the wooden statue of justice above it, “a sword in one hand and a pair of scales in the other. Her eyes were blinded; and the boys believed that she would be as high as a house if she stood on the ground.” The courthouse served as lecture hall and art gallery. He remembered when a visiting professor gave a lecture and demonstration inside the courthouse where he “showed the effects of laughing-gas on such men and boys as were willing to breathe it” and when an exhibition of “a large picture of Death on a Pale Horse shown, to be harrowed to the bottom of his soul by its ghastliness.” The courthouse square was the scene of political speeches and election celebrations.
His grandfather ran a drug and bookstore downtown, and described “another drug store... eight or ten dry-goods stores... but the store that they knew best was a toy-store near the market-house, kept by a quaint old German, where they bought their marbles and tops and Jew's-harps. The store had a high, sharp gable to the street, and showed its timbers through the roughcast of its wall, which was sprinkled with broken glass that glistened in the sun... There were two bakeries, and at the American bakery there were small sponge-cakes... at the Dutch bakery there were pretzels, with salt and ashes sticking on them, that the Dutch boys liked; but the American boys made fun of them.”
Howells remembered “a dozen places where a man could get whiskey,” and no shortage of drunkards. The German immigrants had their own tavern, but they generally went to a brewery to drink. His mother would send him to the brewery with a glass bottle to get yeast for making bread. “The brewery overlooked the river, and you could see the south side of the bridge from its back windows, and that was very strange... like a bridge in some far-off country.”
Before the hydraulic the boy was fascinated with the slaughterhouses in town, but after the hydraulic, the cotton mills held their special fascination. “They were all wild to work in the mills at first, and they thought it a hardship that their fathers would not let them leave school and do it. Some few of the fellows that my boy knew did get to work in the mills; and one of them got part of his finger taken off in the machinery; it was thought a distinction among the boys, and something like having been in war.”
It was in Howells’s Hamilton that the city built its first town hall. “It was in this hall that he first saw a play, and then saw so many plays, for he went to the theatre every night; but for a long time it seemed to be devoted to the purposes of mesmerism. A professor highly skilled in that science, which has reappeared in these days under the name of hypnotism, made a sojourn of some weeks in the town, and besides teaching it to classes of learners who wished to practise it, gave nightly displays of its wonders.”
When Howells wrote of “the outskirts of town,” he wasn’t venturing any further than present Fifth Street, but there he remembered a “pleasure-garden... There were two large old mulberry-trees in this garden, and one bore white mulberries and the other black mulberries, and when you had paid your fip to come in, you could eat all the mulberries you wanted, for nothing... [T]here was a labyrinth, or puzzle, as the boys called it, of paths that wound in and out among bushes, so that when you got inside you were lucky if you could find your way out.”
At the time, Hamilton had a town crier who carried “a good-sized bell” and would announce auctions and sales in addition to local news every few blocks, and serve as entertainment as well as public service. One of the criers was deputy constable who “decorated his proclamation with quips and quirks of his own invention... every boy rejoiced in his impudence.”
The Howells family left Hamilton in 1850 for Dayton, then Xenia. At 21, Howells went to work for a Columbus newspaper and began contributing poetry to the Atlantic Monthly. He got a job writing campaign literature for Abraham Lincoln and earned enough money to move to New England, where he rubbed elbows with literary greats Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman. A Boy’s Life (which is freely available on=line in numerous formats) was written when Howells was in his fifties, and although the third person style and sentimental gleanings may seem a bit cloying to modern ears, it paints an impressionistic word picture of Hamilton in its earliest days.
Scourge of Morgan's Raiders
Scourge of Morgan's Raiders
Although Butler County sent hundreds of young men to fight in the Civil War, the city itself saw no military action during that dark period of history. But when it came close, local men who weren’t already mustered jumped to the fore in defense when Confederate General John Hunt Morgan brought his “raiders” through Southwest Ohio in the summer of 1863. And it was a Hamilton soldier who finally put an end to Morgan’s rampage: Major George W. Rue.
The purpose of Morgan’s raid was to divert Union troops and resources away from Confederate operations of Vicksburg and Gettysburg. Morgan and nearly 2,500 men began their campaign in Sparta, Tennessee on June 11, 1863, rode through Kentucky and crossed the Ohio River in Indiana. General Ambrose Burnside, commander of the Department of the Ohio, declared martial law in Cincinnati and towns all across southern Indiana and Ohio were on high alert.
In writing of the event for the “Historical Sketch of Butler County, Ohio,” published in 1893, Dr. Dan Millikin said that Hamilton was likely spared from Morgan’s raid because “Butler County had no strategic importance,” but that didn’t stop the panic from ensuing.
A volunteer force organized in Butler County to oppose the approaching Confederates. “It was presumed,” the Hamilton-Journal News reported later on an anniversary of the event, “that if Morgan and his men were to come to Hamilton, they would follow what is now known as the Venice River Road [now Hamilton-Cleves Road].” Volunteers cut trees nearly through so that they could easily be felled in front of the advancing troops and four cannons were set up on the Courthouse lawn.
“Hundreds of horses from Hamilton and immediate vicinity were taken out to [Eaton Avenue] in the vicinity of Four Mile Creek and hidden there in the woods.” Many Hamilton residents were apparently so alarmed that they packed up their valuable belongings and headed into the woods to hide out until danger passed.
The reaction of young Belle Hart, a Hamilton teacher, was recalled by newspaper columnist Stella Weiler Taylor in a 1934 edition of the Hamilton Journal-News: “When the excitement was at its height, the girl-teacher armed herself with a shotgun and surrounded by her little pupils, stood in the door of the schoolhouse waiting for the rebel riders to pass. Few who have known the gentle little old lady could imagine her as the heroine of so courageous an adventure.”
Other historians have noted that not all Butler County residents were prepared to mount a defense against Morgan’s guerillas, but some pro-Southern citizens, known as “Copperheads,” were ready to provide aid. “While at Harrison, detachments of [Morgan’s] batallin raided parts of Butler County, notably around Venice, where it was said that the ‘Southern sympathizers’ were the first to hide their horses in the bulrushes along the Miami River and Indian Creek and to ‘holler for help’ from ‘Abe Lincoln’s hirelings.’”
When Hamilton residents saw a “lurid light” to the south, they were assured that Morgan and his men had crossed the river at New Baltimore and burned the bridge behind them.
But his terrible raid was not yet completed. The guerillas rode through Colerain, Springdale, Glendale, and Sharonville, turned east through Ohio’s southern counties and attempted to cross the Ohio River at Bluffington Island,
General Burnside tasked the 9th Kentucky Cavalry, under the command of Hamilton resident Major George W. Rue, who wrote about the experience for the National Tribune in 1896.
Rue said of Morgan: “He was a man of splendid physique, being about six feet one inch in height, and was commanding in appearance and affable in his manners.” Rue said that he and Morgan were raised within 30 miles of each other and served near each other in the Mexican War, but had never met face-to-face until that fateful day
“Morgan had a considerable start,” Rue recalled. “Marching day and night we did not come up with the enemy until Friday morning, July 24, when he was overtaken at the town of Washington... [and] made them leave the place. Many of the citizens were out and gave a hearty welcome to our troops. At East Washington, Morgan tore up a bridge and formed a line-of-battle on the other side of the stream. When within 300 yards Morgan opened a heavy fire on us.
“A large, fleshy man, who came out of town with us, got behind a small sapling to screen himself. He was asked by a solder, ‘What is the matter?’ He replied, ‘Oh, I am so tired and trembling all over.’ His face was the picture of despair.”
Morgan made another escape, burning two more bridges behind him, but Rue and his men kept up the pursuit. By this time, Rue had but 300 men in his command, but he gained intelligence from the citizens of the area about a private road that allowed Rue’s men to overtake Morgan’s as they tried to cross the Ohio River to West Virginia, about nine miles south of the Pennsylvania border.
Rue indeed got there first, set up a line of battle and when Morgan’s men approached, Rue was easily able to surround them.
“Morgan at once dispatched a flag of truce,” Rue writes, “which met me in advance with the demand that I should surrender my force to him.
“I told the bearer of the flag to return at once to his command and notify him that I demanded the instant and unconditional surrender of his entire force, or else I would forthwith open fire upon them.”
Soon enough, Morgan himself appeared and surrendered to Rue. By this time, Morgan’s guerillas had been reduced to 384 men and about 400 horses, Rue said.
During his raid, Morgan and his men captured about 6,000 Union soldiers and militia, destroyed 34 bridges, disrupted the railroads at more than 60 places, and diverted tens of thousands of troops. So some historians declare that his raid was a success, even though Major Rue put an end to it.
The Safe Capitol Of the world
Many Hamilton residents will recall the days when the city’s entrances welcomed visitors to “The Safe Capitol of the World.”
Due to the presence of the Mosler Lock and Safe Company, Herring-Hall-Marvin, and other safe manufacturers, there was a time when Hamilton boasted half of the world’s safe production, largely the result of other local businesses teaming up to lure companies away from Cincinnati.
The German immigrant Gustav Mosler was a cigar maker and bookkeeper before going into the safe manufacturing business in 1867. It proved to be a rapidly flourishing enterprise. Gustav died in 1874 and turned operations over to his sons Moses and William. By the mid-1880s, The Mosler Lock and Safe Company had established sales offices in New York, Boston, Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, Philadelphia, and even Mexico City.
As the 1890s approached, the company had outgrown its facilities at Elm and Front streets on Cincinnati’s riverfront, and the constant flooding of the river compelled the Mosler brothers to seek higher ground.
Hamilton was at the time a growing and bustling industrial city with big dreams. Prominent businessmen like O.R. Parrish and Lazard Kahn offered up $85,000 in cash and 40 acres of land in what would become East Hamilton if they would put the plant here, where there would be access to both the canal and the railroads with plenty of neighboring land. At the time, Mosler employed 400 workers, but expected that number to jump to 600 when they made their big move.
“The right thing to do now is to call a public meeting and the workingmen should take an active hand in this meeting,” the Evening Journal announced with the following prediction: “If the Mosler Safe and Lock Company comes to Hamilton, the Hall Safe and Lock Company will follow. This would make Hamilton the great safe market of the country.”
Although many other cities, notably Sidney and Canton in Ohio and Aurora in Indiana, also made credible pitches for the Mosler relocation, the brothers liked Hamilton and on July 5, 1890, signed the agreement.
There were some delays in construction due to a labor strike and other issues, but the 300,000 square foot factory was in full production by October 12, 1891, on 10 acres of the land offered by Kahn and Parrish. The other 30 acres had been set aside for new housing for the workers, and by the time the plant had opened over 100 homes had been built. The Mosler Station, just east of the plant, boasted a 200-foot platform and a station house to accommodate 50 passengers. It remained in operation until 1943. The East Hamilton Power and Light Company formed to provide electricity not only for the plant, but the surrounding homes and street lights.
Within two years, the plant started expanding with permanent offices, including a clock tower that became an East Hamilton landmark. A recession in the late 1890s slowed things down, but by 1900 a booming economy led to further plant expansion.
One of the reasons Mosler left Cincinnati was to escape the flooding of the Ohio River. That certainly wasn’t a problem in their new East Hamilton home. In fact, when the 1913 flood devastated Hamilton and put Mercy Hospital under water, the Mosler plant cleared out the paint room and set up telephone lines to serve as both a hospital and a crisis center. A water line was run from the Mosler plant’s well to the street to make potable water available to the public. When martial law was declared, the nearby lawn served as encampment for incoming troops and grazing land for cavalry horses.
During the 1920s and ‘30s, Mosler reaped a benefit from being located in “Little Chicago.” Whenever there was a safe blown in the area (and there were many), Mosler would send out an inspector so that they could improve the security of their products.
But no common yegg could come up with a blast like the U.S. government, and Mosler safes have survived some of the biggest man-made explosions in history. An Army lieutenant sent a letter to Mosler in 1946 saying he “found in one of three structures standing, four large vaults built by the Mosler Safe Co. of Hamilton, Ohio. The vaults were entirely intact and except for the exterior being burned and rusted there was no damage.”
In the 1950’s, Mosler took products to the Yucca Flats nuclear testing grounds in Nevada. They placed a Century steel door and concrete vault with various contents in the blast zone.
Mosler also received many other high-profile contracts from the U.S. government. They built a 25-ton blast door vault in West Virginia mountainside bunker used to hide classified and historical documents. During World War II, the plant converted from manufacturing safes to Sherman tanks. They also built a special jack-in-the-Box safe in the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C. in which the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights were displayed. The Butler County Historical Society Museum currently displays a working model of that contraption.
Moses Mosler joined Kahn and Parrish in luring other safe manufacturer with land and financial incentives. On September 1, 1896, Hamilton greeted the Herring-Hall-Marvin Safe Co. with a 100-gun salute during groundbreaking ceremonies. This company flourished alongside Mosler. Canton-based Diebold Inc. purchased the company’s assets and the Hamilton plant in 1959 and ceased operations in the Grand Boulevard plant in 1991.
The final 300 employees of the Mosler Inc. and of the safe manufacturing industry in Hamilton were suddenly left without jobs in August 2001 when a last-minute sale of the bankrupt company fell through and it closed all of its operations world-wide.
Gordon S. Rentschler
A Titan of National Industry
A Titan of National Industry
One of the most formidable businessmen of his era, Gordon Sohn Rentschler first made his mark on his Hamilton hometown before becoming a titan of banking and industry for the nation.
He was born into one of the city’s most important manufacturing families. The Rentschler name has been almost synonymous with the city of Hamilton since George Adam Rentschler arrived here in 1873. A native of Wurtemberg, Germany, he came to the United States as a boy with his widowed father and six siblings. He was educated in Newark, N.J., and learned the trades of the molder and patternmaker, which took him to various points in the Midwest. When the Indianapolis-based Variety Iron works moved to Hamilton, he came with the firm as a foreman, but he soon opened his own shop with a $200 loan. "His integrity and determination were the only collateral the Second National Bank had for the loan that was the start of a small foundry business," his obituary recalled.
During his career, he was associated with several different companies, some of them with his name on them, and in 1904 built Hamilton’s first skyscraper, still known as the Rentschler Building.
He was a widower when he arrived, but married into the prominent Schwab family, and was the father of three young men who would build upon that empire in profound ways.
The oldest of his Hamilton-born children (he had two from his first marriage), Gordon S. Rentschler was born in 1885, and after graduating from Princeton as class president in 1907, returned to Hamilton to join his father in business in the manufacture of heavy machinery, including the famous Corliss engine, rolling mill equipment for various industries (including sugar), and ship engines.
His biggest mark on the city of Hamilton came in the wake of the Great Flood of 1913. As many of his operations suffered great losses during the flood, he eagerly became one of the first trustees of the Miami Conservancy District, appointed by Governor James Cox, and is credited with having secured the $35 million bond that made Arthur Morgan’s elaborate flood control program a reality. This endeavor brought young Mr. Rentchler to the attention of National City Bank president Charles E. Mitchell.
When World War I broke out, Rentschler went to Washington on behalf of the Hooven-Owens-Rentschler Company and made a pitch to build a Corliss engine a day for the nation’s battle fleet. He was told it wasn’t possible, that the shop wasn’t big enough, but he did it anyway, famously unloading pig iron from railroad cars alongside the shop’s laborers to help keep up the pace.
He became friends with Henry Ford when his shops started making machinery for the assembly lines there and is generally credited with convincing Ford to build a plant in Hamilton. When the nation went through a depression in 1921, he went to Detroit and obtained contracts for $4.5 million in new machinery. He returned to Hamilton and sublet some of the contracts to shops other than his own to help keep the local industry healthy.
So in 1921, when National City Bank had some issues with a depressed sugar industry, Mitchell called on Rentscher, who had developed some expertise in the area from the manufacture of sugar mill machinery. So he went to Cuba to iron out the situation and when he came back was appointed a director of the bank. Although the position had no salary, he became so dedicated to the bank that by 1925 he moved from Hamilton to New York, slowly began delegating his Hamilton duties, including his seat on the Conservancy board, to his youngest brother. He bought Mitchell’s Fifth Avenue house and Mitchell built a bigger one next door, though he never gave up his Hamilton home and returned frequently for the remainder of his life.
Rentschler, now 40, made quite the impression on the New York crowd. The playwright and journalist Laurence Stallings wrote a glowing, somewhat fawning profile on the young bachelor for the New York World, which included a detailed physical description: “Rentschler is about six feet tall, and weighs around 185 pounds. There is a slight stoop to the thick shoulders and a forward thrust of the neck. His brown hair is close-cropped and parted in the middle. Blue eyes peer alertly through thick-lensed spectacles. The nose is large enough to be called aggressive in its slight hook. His chin appears small because of the fleshy throat, but juts out to a firm point... Rentschler’s voice... is deep yet faintly nasal. It carries the easy assurance most successful men display. Above all, it is a friendly voice. The composite impression is one of boyish directness, unaffected and avid interest in the people and things around him, a naturally companionable disposition. He is a man most persons would like on brief acquaintance. One of his friends says, ‘You could travel with Gordon for a month and never know he had more than a hundred dollars.”
Two years later, he married rather late in life to Mary Coolidge Atkins of Boston on July 23, 1927, but together they had three daughters, plus another daughter from his wife’s first marriage.
In 1929, he succeeded Mitchell as president of National City bank, the second largest bank in the world at the time. He became a director of many different companies, including the City Bank Farmer’s Trust Company, the Union Pacific Railroad, the Home Insurance Company, National Cash Register, and the Anaconda Copper Mining Company. In 1946, President Truman appointed him to a special 12-member committee of industrialists and bankers to draft recommendations for rehabilitating foreign trade.
Although he had not been in the best of health when he returned to Cuba for a vacation in March 1948, he fell ill after visiting a sugar mill in Soledad and took to bed at the Nacional Hotel in Havana. He was making plans to return to the United States on the morning of March 3 when he suffered the first of three heart attacks on that one day. The third one killed him. Tearful obituaries graced front pages of newspapers across the country.
The hometown Journal-News eulogized him: “A natural-born leader, he forged to the front in whatever activity in which he was drawn to ad to each he gave of himself without restraint, displaying a judgment which secured success in the endeavor.”
His body was returned to Hamilton and he was interred in Greenwood Cemetery.
Hamilton's Lady of Letters
Hamilton's Lady of Letters
The name is familiar to few now, but there was a time when Jane Hudson Corwin was known to the city as Hamilton’s “first lady of letters.”
She was born in Ireland and came to Hamilton as a young child in 1818. Her father, James McMechan, a Presbyterian clergyman and educator, died shortly after arriving, or as she describes it, “...he was permitted but to view this ‘land of the free, and the home of the brave,’ ere he was called to lay down and die.’” Her sister Ellen McMechan became the first woman teacher in Hamilton.
She married local attorney Jesse Corwin, son of Matthias Corwin, who served as the Ohio Speaker of the House for many years, and the brother of Thomas Corwin, a Lebanon, Ohio politician who served as Secretary of the Treasury under Millard Fillmore. Jesse Corwin, in addition to being a prominent citizen who helped institute the county fair, also served a term in the Ohio general assembly. Together they had eight children, three of which died in childhood.
It is interesting to note that for a time, the Corwin family lived next door to the Howells family, and her sons were close boyhood friends of William Dean Howells, who immortalized his Hamilton childhood in his book “A Boy’s Town.”
After many years as a contributor to early Hamilton newspapers The Telegraph and The Intelligencer, usually under a pseudonym, she wrote but one book, “The Harp of Home, or The Medley,” nearly 400 pages of poetry, essays, and general literary ramblings published in 1858. Her poetry and prose may seem preciously quaint to modern ears, but the musicality of her writing prompted Stella Weiler Taylor, historian and newspaper columnist of the 1930s, to quip, “I am sure she sang as she wrote.” Indeed, Weiler Taylor credits the book as the inspiration for her long-running history column, “Rosemary, That’s For Remembrance.”
“The Harp of Home” came to publication through the efforts of two Rossville men who sold subscriptions at a dollar each. She counted among her supporters Hamilton’s elderly statement John Woods, John Riley, James McBride, and several Millikins. Interlaced among the flights of fancy and poetry are glimpses of early Hamilton through the eyes of a young girl, similar to Howells’s work on the subject.
She called herself a “plain talk rhymer,” and her book is organized as a collection of forty-nine “prefaces,” which mix up conversational prose and poetry with sketches of Hamilton and Rossville, particularly in her youth.
In one passage, she recalls making a journey across the river on an errand with a servant, Betty Woods, who had traveled to America with the McMechan family.
“At the time of which I write, there was no bridge across the Miami river... it was then building; the three piers were completed, and much of the woodwork put together; but it was only a stripling for sometime.”
On the way back from their journey, the tow rope broke and left the ferry aimlessly floating down the Great Miami River, sparking terror in the child.
Corwin relates Mary Woods’s desperate monologue, written out to emphasize her thick brogue: “Oh! My wee darlint, what wud the Mistress say if she’d know’d the pariloust condition we wur in. It’s runnin’ mad... I don’t like this Ameriky at all, at all, so I don’t. We niver had enny thing but throuble since we cum into it...”[sic]
Soon enough, the ferry lodged against the middle pier of the bridge under construction, and there the wee lass and her caretaker were rescued safely landed back in Rossville. For their trouble, the ferry owner instructed the operator that the widow, the servant, and all the fatherless children be given lifetime free passage on the ferry. Though the ferryman wasn’t too keen on the free rides, he grudgingly accommodated.
“It may be supposed when the bridge was finished, the free pass was no longer used,” Corwin writes, “but that was not the case; in long years after, I, myself, took upon my own responsibility the privilege of the old pass.”
It should be no surprise, then, that her most celebrated poem was “To the Miami,” an ode to the river written in her later years as she looked out the upper window of her B Street home.
In the section titled “Preface No. 24,” she writes about the merger of Hamilton and Rossville, taking to task those who presented the event as the death of Rossville, when she preferred to think of it as a marriage, writing, “I am very sure it would be more heart-cheering and appropriate, to say that the two good old towns had made a match of it, than to say, that one was dead, because it was joined to the others.”
“I have cherished Jane Corwin in my heart as an ideal for years, as one keeps a rose pressed in a book,” Weiler Taylor wrote in 1931. “She loved Hamilton, she delighted in music, poetry, and children, and she dreamed dreams. She dared to be ‘spontaneous’ in a strait-laced age, and looked always upon the brighter side of life, with words of praise for those she loved and a sweet forgiveness of carping critics.”
Later, Stella Weiler Taylor provides a eloquent description of Jane Corwin, based on a daguerreotype photograph: “A lady of serene, sweet dignity, her shining black hair crowned with a lace wrap, her eyes a-gleam with intelligence and sympathy. About her is draped a handsome paisley shawl and from a heavy gold chair is suspended a miniature of her handsome husband.”
“She was frail and delicate to look upon, but she carried many heavy burdens,” wrote her daughter Jennie Corwin in a 1931 letter to Weiler Taylor.
After her husband’s death in 1867, Mrs. Corwin lived out her long life at the southeast corner of B Street and Ross Avenue. She continued to write bits of verse for the local newspapers, and one curious anecdote has her writing “a New Year’s address” for newspaper carriers to deliver to their subscribers as a way to increase their holiday gifts.
Jane H. Corwin died in 1881 and is buried in Greenwood Cemetery.
"Uncle Peter" Schwab
The Political Boss
The Political Boss
“And Peter Schwab is dead.”
So read the lead story of the Hamilton Evening Journal on September 15, 1913, one simple sentence that expressed the profound sorrow that had spread across the city on the passing of “Uncle Peter,” as he was affectionately called by the press, and presumably, the people.
Certainly in his own advertising.
In addition to a lengthy obituary outlining his career and achievements, the editorial writers that day waxed eloquently about his passing: “The acquaintanceships, the friendships, the associations of Mr. Schwab extended far beyond the family circle, far beyond the circle of usual friendships and that is the reason that Hamilton mourns today as one family because one whom it knew so well, loved because of his generosity and respected because of his fearlessness, has passed from the activities of life into that mysterious realm shrouded in the mystery called death” [sic].
“One would not take him for a politician nor a brewer,” wrote a Cincinnati reporter. “Can you imagine a converted cowboy with an honest face, large feet, long legs, a sandy beard, a black sombrero and an enormous heart! ... Peter is all wool and a yard wide.”
In many ways, the resume of Peter Schwab reads like “The Great American Dream Fulfilled.” Born 1838 in Bavaria, Schwab (who pronounced his name “Swope”) came to the Hamilton on a canal boat from New Orleans at the age of 12 and never lost his thick German accent. Here, he became a cooper’s apprentice, learning the craft of making barrels for brewing and distilling. He was, the obituary reads, “shrewd industrious and saving and in 1866 had accumulated sufficient of this world's goods to embark upon a business career.”
In that year, it goes on, he became engaged in “the commission business,” and by 1874 was able to buy the Sohn Brewery at South Front and Sycamore streets, which eventually covered the entire block of the current police station. He renamed it “The Cincinnati Brewing Company,” and marketed a regionally-popular lager under the brand name “Pure Gold” as “the beer that made Milwaukee jealous” and “the King of Bottled Beers.” He added an ice-making facility in later years, the only part of the enterprise that survived Prohibition.
Schwab is also credited for bringing the electric street cars, known as “traction lines”, to Hamilton and Butler County, taking a personal hand in securing rights to the land. As a member of the Sewer Commission, he was instrumental in developing the city’s sewer system and in bringing paved roads to Hamilton. His philanthropy included a special interest in Mercy Hospital, supplying all the ice to the institution for free and keeping its laboratories outfitted with up-to-date equipment.
But above all, Peter Schwab was known as one of the most politically powerful men in Hamilton and Butler County, and consequently what was then the Third Congressional District where he had to contend with Montgomery County politicos. He was a staunch “old-line” Grover Cleveland democrat, and his only elected office, 12 years on the board of education, was but the iceberg tip of his influence. During his tenure as boss, the democratic party was so prominent in Hamilton that the power struggle was not between republicans and democrats so much as it was between the “Schwabite” faction of democrats and whatever faction was challenging him at the time.
In a 1930 special section looking back on “the Gay Nineties,” the Hamilton Daily News wrote that the era was “the hey-day of Peter Schwab.”
It surmised, “Schwab, if all things told of him are true, was not an Easy Boss. He did things ruthlessly to those who opposed him. He had his enemies within and without his own party.”
Clearly, his power was not absolute, and sometimes his faction fell out of favor, as in the mid-1890s when two members of his school board and others in his party were participants in a dog fight at a Port Union ice house that ended in a brawl with a man shot dead. Chided in the next election as “the dog-fighting faction,” the Schwab clique’s power waned a bit and his struggle to maintain it found him accused of election chicanery for the second time in his career. Accusations against Schwab of ballot-stuffing date back to the 1870s, when Butler County Sheriff Allen Andrews saw Schwab open a ballot box and throw in a handful of tickets. The Sheriff testified that Schwab turned around and their eyes met. Startled, Schwab asked, “Did you see that?” The Sheriff, a democrat, replied, “I could not help seeing it, Peter.”
To understand the depth of his influence, it might be interesting to go back to space in the obituary between the apprenticeship and “the commission business” and unpack a little. It seems the local press had forgiven and forgotten a lot by the time of Uncle Peter’s death, because his rise to prominence includes a lot of accusations of thuggery and corruption, and more than one historical source gives Peter Schwab credit for single-handedly creating a whiskey ring that spanned the length of the Miami-Erie Canal in an elaborate scheme to beat the federal liquor tax.
In a June 7, 1870 the Cincinnati Enquirer published an article titled “OUR PETER. The King of the Whisky Ring_How Peter Schwab got Rich, as Related by a Correspondent of the New York Tribune,” which details Schwab’s “whisky and revenue frauds extending over two years and aggregating $3,000,000.” That translates to nearly $60 million in early twenty-first century dollars. This article corroborates many of the accusations later made against Schwab in the 1874 book credited to Thomas McGehean, although the latter is somewhat tainted by the politics of the day.
The article posits that prior to 1863, Schwab was “a poor and industrious mechanic, earning daily wages,” but his political enthusiasm earned him an appointment as constable of Fairfield Township, which included Hamilton. In the days before a professional police department, the constable was charged with maintaining peace and order, and was paid by presenting to the clerk of courts an invoice for every arrest made, whether the case went to trial or not. A normally diligent constable would have earned around five or six hundred dollars a year, McGehean says. During the 1862 term, however, the super-diligent young Schwab earned about $8,000. That seemed a bit excessive to those in charge, and there were allegations that some of the arrests were only on paper, so it became a law that in order for a constable to collect the fee, there must be a formal bill of indictment issued by a grand jury.
Nevertheless, with that money, Schwab funded a whiskey-buying operation and netted $200,000 by purchasing 100,000 barrels of whiskey just before the government clapped on a tax of $2 a gallon to fund the Civil War.
With these proceeds, Schwab purchased an interest in one of Hamilton’s two distilleries. As he would later do with the breweries, he eventually bought out the other stakeholders. He turned his attention to other distilleries up and down the Miami-Erie Canal, purchasing at least a controlling interest in each so that he could install loyal men into critical positions that allowed him to skirt the federal whiskey taxes.
“He worked alone -- in the dark,” the Enquirer reported. “It is doubtful if the very men he employed knew each other to be in his employ. There was no one to betray operations.”
A case was pending against him when this article appeared, continuing, “In the choice of his agents, the secrecy of his operations, the depth of his plans, the magnitude of his schemes, the audacity and prudence demanded and displayed, there are qualities developed sometimes wanting in the generals of armies. Of the many marvels of the Whisky Ring, his career has been the most marvelous. It will hardly be expected that the present investigation of his operations will amount to much. Well-paid agents are almost as poor as dead men at telling tales.”
A New York Tribune article quipped that Schwab “rose to an understanding of the distilling business, and mastered its details better than the revenue officers.”
Although he was acquitted in the 1870 ballot stuffing case, the whiskey fraud eventually turned around to bite him and Schwab filed bankruptcy in 1872, his distilleries auctioned by the government to pay a judgement against him for unpaid taxes. Still, the next 20 years saw Schwab’s influence grow until it took the legislative power of the Ohio Senate to slow down the Schwab machine by enacting “the Hamilton Ripper Bill” in 1898, despite allegations that Schwab personally took suitcases full of cash to Columbus to stop it. The bill dismantled Hamilton’s city government and gave power to a five-man board, chosen by a judge that favored the faction led by the young upstart Charles E. Mason, but within two years, a new judge was elected and the power shifted enough to put the Schwabites back into power with Uncle Peter again at the helm, albeit behind the scenes and in the news.
However shady his origin story, Schwab remained a powerful businessman and influential politician throughout his life, and earned a prominent place in Hamilton society and history. His pallbearers included three Rentchlers, two Fittons and a Schwenn -- and a former Ohio Governor, James E. Campbell, a native of Hamilton whom Schwab converted from a Republican.
The Gard Power Trio
Over the course of generations, there have been many families whose names are synonymous with Hamilton — be they Becketts, Benninghofens, Rentschlers, Millikins, or Fittons — honored in history and on buildings and street signs, and whose ancestors continue to help make our city a great hometown.
Though their dynasty was but a brief three generations, Samuel Zearly Gard was the patriarch of one of those powerful pioneer families. A little more than a century ago, Samuel and his sons Homer and Warren were a power trio in local law, politics, and journalism.
Samuel Zearly Gard was the son of Butler County pioneers, born 1833 near Darrtown. He went off to Antioch College in Yellow Springs and studied under the famed congressman and educational reformer Horace Mann, who coined what became the college’s motto:
“Be Ashamed to Die Until You Have Won Some Victory for Humanity.”
This, indeed, seems to be an apt epigram for the Gard family.
Samuel Gard returned from Antioch an educator himself in the local schools while he studied law under Judge Alexander F. Hume, passing the bar in 1859 and taking up a successful practice. That same year, he also launched a side career in journalism, helping to establish Hamilton’s first German paper, Schwildewache.
Back in those days, when newspapers were largely operated by special interest groups, usually political parties, and at the beginning of the Civil War, partisan tension was as palpable as it has ever been. In 1861, Hamilton’s Democratic Telegraph was purchased by and absorbed into the Republican Intelligencer, leaving the Butler County Democratic Party without a newspaper. The situation “became acute,” according to a later report, when at their August 1861 convention, the Butler County Democrats adopted resolutions denouncing President Lincoln and the Civil War, the editors of the Telegraph refused to print them.
Thus Samuel Gard, a devoted Democrat, organized a consortium of four other prominent men who chipped in $200 each to purchase a printing press from the recently defunct Oxford Union. Gard and another of the consortium took a two-horse wagon to Oxford to pick up their machine, and a large crowd of Democrats lined the street to welcome them on their return.
The Democratic party established the True Telegraph the following month, balance was restored, and at the following election, Samuel Gard won the seat of Butler County prosecutor, which he held for two elected and one interim term (when he prosecuted the infamous McGehean trials). In his book “Biographical and Historical Sketches,” Stephen D. Cone described Samuel Gard as “a man of unimpeachable honesty and integrity of character, of a keen, clear and very decisive mind, uncompromising in his dislikes and a firm and ever faithful friend.” Cone said that Gard was several times nominated to be mayor of Hamilton, but always declined to run.
His professional career on solid footing in two careers, Samuel Gard turned at least some of his attention to domestic life. He and his wife, the former Miss Mary “Mollie” Duke, had two children. Homer was born January 9, 1866, and Warren, July 2, 1873. Both were bright, capable young men and determinedly followed in their father’s various footsteps. That is, Homer became a journalist, Warren a lawyer and a politician.
After graduating from Hamilton High School in 1884, Homer entered Amherst College, ending his studies after three years to return home because of the illness of his father, who suffered from asthma. Samuel wanted his oldest son to go into law, but young Homer felt the call to journalism, and took his first job with the Daily News, Hamilton’s Republican paper, as its society reporter, a first step in a career that lasted 65 years. He was fired from this job in 1890 after getting stuck in the middle of a dispute between his editor and William Beckett, owner of the paper mill.
The following day, he took a job with the competition, the Daily Democrat.
His career took its first great leap forward as a result of a workplace tragedy, when editor John K. Aydelotte got his coat caught in the wheels of the printing press and was killed, February 1891. Homer Gard was chosen editor “on trial.” The trial apparently lasted until the newspaper encountered some financial trouble and sold to an investment group that fired Homer and replaced him with a school teacher, Lee Rose. Homer promptly bought controlling interest in the Canton (Ohio) News-Democrat and moved there for 18 months.
His first act as editor and publisher in Canton was to change the name of the newspaper to the Daily News, causing much consternation among the Democrats there. He continued to rile them by taking un-Democratic stances on certain issues. The final straw came when Gard endorsed a prominent hometown Republican, William McKinley, in the 1896 presidential election. The local Democrats withdrew their advertising, and so Homer Gard sold his interest at a loss when the offer came from Hamilton to return and become editor of the Republican Daily News.
The following year, the Daily Democrat once again changed ownership and Homer took over as president and general manager, and purchased one share of stock. By September 1897, with limited capital but the support of the Second National Bank, he had purchased all the stock in the Daily Democrat and installed his aging father on the board of directors. Samuel Gard, suffering from severe asthma, died in 1906. The Daily Democrat changed to the Evening Journal in 1908, and in 1933 absorbed the competing Republican Daily News to become the Journal-News, making Hamilton a one-newspaper town for the first time since the 1820s.
Though Homer Gard’s prominence as a newspaperman would be his defining role both locally and nationally (he was a charter member of the Associated Press and instrumental in founding several other press associations), he was busy in the community and somewhat active in politics. He served one term as clerk of the City Council (1903-1905), and in December 1913 was nominated by President Woodrow Wilson to be Postmaster of Hamilton, a role he held for over eight years.
His contributions to the social and cultural life, however, are beyond measure. His dearest involvement was with the YMCA, beginning shortly after the turn of his century when he began serving on committees. In 1923, he was elected to the board and in 1929 to the presidency, an office he held until his death. It was to the YMCA that he and his wife Lutie left the enduring legacy of Camp Campbell Gard north of the city along the Great Miami River in honor of their only son, a World War I veteran who died in 1921 while just beginning his career at his father’s newspaper.
Homer also helped found the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce in 1910, served many years as president of that board and in 1930 became a director of the Chamber of Commerce of the United States. He was a devoted member of the Rotary Club and its Crippled Children’s Committee; served as president of the Red Cross, on the boards of Mercy Hospital, Second National Bank, the Florida Bank and Trust Company, and Miami University; was active in the Boy Scouts; and a member of civic and fraternal organizations too numerous to list.
His younger brother Warren had an equally distinguished career in law and politics. Indeed, Warren was perhaps even more of a prodigy. After graduating from the Cincinnati Law School and one year at the bar, Warren was but 25 years old when he was first elected Butler County Prosecutor in 1898. His father was 28 when he took the office.
In that capacity, he prosecuted Butler County’s first case that would end in the electric chair when Alfred Knapp murdered his wife in 1902 and sent her body down the Great Miami River in a shoe box. He gained fame for his prosecution of a case charging a couple with manslaughter after denying their young child medical care after suffering severe burns, relying instead on prayer as a curative agent. He went toe-to-toe with high-powered Chicago lawyers when he prosecuted two men from that city in a diamond heist against a local jeweler.
By 1907, still under 40 years old, he was elected to the bench, and in 1912 was tapped by the Ohio Democratic Party to run for the congressional seat vacated by James M. Cox, who had become governor. So Mr. Gard went to Washington and held his seat until 1921. As the second ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, Gard prepared all the legislation that took the United States into World War I and introduced the bill that established the Boy Scouts of America. Although he would be on the losing end of the battle, he was an outspoken opponent of Prohibition.
In 1921, while still serving in Congress, Warren Gard contracted erysipelas, an acute skin infection. He came home and resumed his law practice, even defended some of the local gangsters in their own war against prohibition, but the effects of the erysipelas eventually overcame him, and he died of kidney failure, November 1, 1929. He was 52 years old.
Warren Gard and his wife Pearl are said to have loved children, but never had any of their own, and because of the untimely death of Campbell Gard eight years earlier, the lineage of Samuel Zearly Gard came to an end
Charles S. Bosch
Hamilton's Wise Counselor
Hamilton's Wise Counselor
As Hamilton’s youngest and longest-serving mayor, Charles S. Bosch seemed to be something of a Teflon politician in the days of iron skillets.
Dogged mightily by the opposition, who accused him of all manners of misconduct, including embezzlement, Bosch weathered scandals, fought crime, and served as a fair and empathetic judge while he oversaw the development of the city’s early sewage and electrical systems. In March 1898, when the Great Miami River took six lives and a covered bridge in a catastrophic flood, it was Mayor Charlie Bosch at the front of the recovery. He is credited as the man who brought paved roads to Hamilton. When the city government failed, only Charlie Bosch held steady.
Charlie Bosch was the son of Frederick and Lena (Breitling) Bosch, both natives of Württemberg, Germany, who came to America in 1852 and ended up on a farm in Jacksonburg in Madison Township, where Charlie, the youngest of three children, was born on July 11, 1858.
When Charlie was 12, the family moved to Hamilton. His first job was at the National Zeitung, Hamilton’s German newspaper, where he became a crackerjack typesetter. He didn’t particularly like the work, though, and never finished his apprenticeship. Instead, he learned how to make cigars and opened a cigar shop, which he sold to become the freight clerk for the CH&D Railroad.
In 1883, married Mary Kay Schwab, “a lady of high social attainments,” and they had three children: Walter, Edna, and Lillian. Mary Kay was the niece of Peter Schwab, owner of the Cincinnati Brewing Company, a longtime president of the Hamilton Board of Education and a boss in the local Democratic Party.
The Schwab family was a great influence on Charlie, and it was likely the patronage of Peter Schwab that led Bosch into politics, first as the fourth ward representative and clerk for the Board of Education.
Although he was a loyal Democrat, first became mayor in 1893 as an independent running against the establishment.
The Democratic party had fallen into disarray when two Democratic members of the school board, a city councilman, and two of Peter Schwab’s sons were arrested at a Port Union dog fight during a free-for-all in which a saloon keeper was killed by a seemingly stray bullet.
The party split in two, and when Charlie Bosch did not get the nomination, he ran as an independent backed by what the Republican News called “the dog fight faction” of the party led by Peter Schwab.
It’s hard to say from the distance of time whether it was through political maneuvering, election fraud, the endorsement of Homer Gard’s Daily Democrat newspaper, or truly on Bosch’s popularity from his service on the school board, but he was elected by a solid majority and at 34 years old, became the youngest mayor in Hamilton history. He easily won his reelection in the spring of 1895, again in 1897, 1899, 1901, and 1903, making him also
Hamilton’s longest-serving mayor. Raymond H. Burke came close, serving in that role from 1928 to 1940. Both were elected six times, but Bosch’s term was eight months longer because the elections shifted from the spring to the fall while he was in office.
Bosch’s first scandal may still serve as an object lesson against nepotism. His first appointment–three days after the election and before taking office–was making his brother-in-law George Schwab, nephew of Peter Schwab, night captain of the police department. They soon fell into discord over the operation of the saloons in downtown Hamilton, which were many.
Captain Schwab wanted to arrest two saloon owners for staying open past midnight, a violation of city ordinances. Mayor Bosch said the captain might be better off if he “wouldn’t see so many things after midnight,” reported the Daily Republican under the headline “An Open Rupture,” saying that the two were now “practically enemies” as they accused Bosch of winking at the law for political gain.
Bosch fired Schwab, who ignored the order and went out on patrol anyway. Bosch let him get away with it the first night, but when Captain Schwab came to work the second night, the mayor sent two officers to arrest him for impersonating an officer and carrying a concealed weapon.
Peter Schwab soon got wind of the arrest and showed up at the police station with his nephew’s bond. And as the Schwabs were leaving the station, they passed through the patrol wagon station and ex-Captain George flicked a cigar out of the side door.
As it so happened, Mayor Bosch was passing by on the outside of that door and the lit cigar hit him in the face.
The articles don’t say whether the mayor typically carried a gun, but he packing was that night. He drew a revolver and aimed it at George’s head. There was a tense moment and a lot of excitement, but the mayor stood down and no one was shot. The Schwabs maintained the cigar flip was an accident. Witnesses said otherwise.
Perhaps the greatest testament to Bosch’s political resilience is that he managed to survive a scandal that brought down the entire city government. When the Ohio Senate voted 23 to 6 to dismantle Hamilton’s municipal government in 1898, only Bosch kept his job.
The ballot tampering in the election of 1897 was deemed so improper that “The Hamilton Ripper Bill” ousted the entire city council and fired all politically-appointed heads of the municipal departments, putting everything under the control of a five-man board appointed by the county’s senior judge, John Neilan, until the city could enact a new charter. Not only was Mayor Bosh exempted from the house-cleaning effects of the Ripper, the bill gave him veto power over the Board of Control.
Still, the opposition was constantly upbraiding him for one thing or another, the way he handled public contracts or his administration’s bookkeeping practices. He was never indicted for anything, although a Catholic priest in 1896 demanded his impeachment and challenged him to a duel because the mayor wasn’t doing enough to disperse the hoodlums that gathered around the church at night. Mayor Bosch said he wouldn’t mind being impeached but declined the offer to duel.
In those days, the mayor also held court, which served as a sort of arraignment hearing for serious crimes, but he could also render verdicts and pass sentences. He was said to be very compassionate in that role, and would sometimes levy a fine against a man for unruly behavior, then secretly give the money to the wife so that the family would not suffer a financial setback because Dad was acting the scoundrel.
When Hamilton police arrested Alfred Knapp in 1903 for bigamy and suspicion of murdering his wife Hannah, Bosch sat in on a four-hour sweat session with the chief of police and four other officials. The alleged murder took place next door to Bosch’s house on South Fourth Street, and he knew the suspect as an odd but friendly sort of fellow. Knapp insisted that Hannah had left him and he didn’t know where she was, so he didn’t see anything wrong with having gotten married again.
When the law enforcement interrogators left Bosch alone with the suspect while they checked up on some information he had given them, Knapp dropped the act and confessed to the murder. The next day, Knapp would speak only to Bosch again when he confessed to four other murders in Cincinnati and Indianapolis. Although the latter confessions weren’t pursued, Knapp went to the electric chair for the murder of his wife. Bosch, having shown sympathy for the simple-minded Knapp throughout the ordeal, went to the execution and received Knapp’s final handwritten confession to various other crimes, which helped set an innocent man free.
A week after Knapp’s execution in August, 1904, Bosch and his wife were relaxing on their front porch when the neighborhood became alarmed over a horrible argument around the corner on Sycamore Street. Bosch was the first official on the scene and discovered the brutal murder of Mamie Sherman by her husband, Charles Victor Sherman.
He had taken a chair, a knife, and an axe to her, then tried to cut his own throat.
While he faced down scandal, tragedy, disaster, and major crimes during his career, Charlie Bosch could not recover from typhoid fever, which he contracted during his final term in office. After a period of rest, he emerged as the owner of a downtown hotel and became one of the city’s favorite hosts.
He died from the lingering effects of typhoid in 1917. In his obituary The Daily Democrat said he was “Kindly in action, considerate of others, gentle in words and without condemnation for the weaknesses of others, he was a man worthy of the confidence of the people of Hamilton so long imposed on him.”
The Stalwart Superintendent
The Stalwart Superintendent
In the spring of 1903, the Hamilton Board of Education hired a 29-year-old recent graduate of Miami University as the principal for the Columbia School on Park Avenue.
It did not take long for Professor Darrell Joyce to earn the respect of the board, and when Superintendent S. Lee Rose died that same year after a long illness, they tapped Joyce in August to replace him.
He immediately made his mark on the district, persuading the board to adopt some kind of a “merit system” for hiring teachers and other innovations.
“He is a young man of energy and progressive ideas and the schools have steadily improved under his supervision,” the Evening Journal crowed when Joyce’s contract was approved two years later at a salary of $2,500 annually, allowing that he wasn’t too progressive as he eschewed the “fads” of modern education, “adopting only the best of new ideas.”
They also touted his strict but fair ideas on discipline, “especially in the high school where the conduct of the boys has been much better. Supt. Joyce is a man who means what he says and if he tells a boy that the next time he repeats a certain caper he will be expelled he means it and if the misconduct is repeated out he will go.”
Joyce was born in Venice (Ross) March 12, 1874, the son of Major Robert Joyce, a veteran of the Union Army who fought in the Civil War, and Isabella Townsend Joyce. His father was for many years a leading member of the Republican party in Butler County, though his son would cast his lot with the Democrats.
In 1898, he married Henrietta Bedinger of Venice.
Joyce entered Miami University in 1900, already with several years of teaching experience in the county schools to his credit. During his student days at the university he was one of the most popular young men on campus and an active member of the Sigma Chi fraternity. He was also quite athletic and powerful, for three years the star first baseman of the Miami baseball team.
During practically all of his residence in Hamilton, Joyce was active in many civic affairs. He was one of the organizers of the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce in 1910 and the Hamilton Community Chest in 1920. He was first vice president of the Chamber of Commerce in 1917 and its president in 1918. He also served as a member of the board of directors of the Chamber of Commerce from 1920 until 1929. For several years he was a trustee of Miami University and president of the Boy Scouts of Butler County.
The success of several of the campaigns of the Community Chest were attributed to his untiring efforts, when he served as chairman of the business men's group and also as chairman of the initial gifts committee.
During the first World War, Joyce served as food administrator for Butler County and following the war remained active with the local chapter of the Red Cross and served for a time as its president. He was active in state educational activities, but always declined to take any offices or hold positions of power outside of Hamilton, although he did serve a term as president of the Southwest Ohio Teachers Association.
Joyce was one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the charter movement in Hamilton in the 1920s that created Hamilton’s first city manager form of government as a way to circumvent the politically charged crony system that had prevailed over the previous decades.
Although he was by all accounts an upstanding and outstanding citizen--and a teetotaller--Darrell Joyce did fall into a bit of controversy during Prohibition.
He had moved to Hamilton when he became superintendent, but he and his wife still held property in Venice, including a 212-acre farm that they rented to a fellow named Lacy.
On the evening of May 9, 1925, he would later explain in an affidavit, Joyce had gone to the farm on business when two other men, Shirley Cates and Harvey Dietz, mutual friends of Joyce and his tenant, stopped in for a social call. They all played cards for a bit, and around 9:30 Cates and Lacey left the house, Lacey leaving a half-filled half-pint bottle of whiskey on the kitchen floor. Around 10 o’clock, Dietz and Joyce heard a noise outside and Joyce picked up the bottle of whiskey and stuck it in his pocket.
Seconds later, four prohibition officers walked into the kitchen unannounced. They had apparently come on reports of a still on the farm, but found none. Instead, they found the half-pint bottle of liquor in Joyce’s coat pocket and arrested him, even though Cates, who had returned to the house shortly after the officers’ arrival, claimed the bottle as his.
When he went to court, Joyce explained that he was not guilty, “but recognizing the fact that while I was not morally guilty I might be considered technically guilty, I consented to pay what I thought to be an unjust fine in a case which I felt I could win in any impartial court.”
His reputation was well-established by that time, and the whole thing might have blown over had not the Rev. William McBirnie of the First Congregational Church, Hamilton’s Prohibition crusader, called him out from the pulpit, demanding that he resign or be fired.
Joyce declined to resign and declared that he would not unless the school board requested it of him.
“I shall pay little attention to the rantings of any publicity seeking egotist posing as a leader in a religion whose tenets he evidently does not grasp and who is a disgrace to the cloth he wears,” Joyce wrote in an affidavit.
At the next meeting, the board did take up the matter. In doing so, they received a letter in Joyce’s defense signed by every teacher in the district and from the board of directors of the Hamilton Rotary Club, calling him “the most highly regarded and best beloved member of our club since its formation in 1919.”
School board member Rosa Haines submitted a resolution that Joyce be asked to resign. She was supported by board member Martha Stewart. But the three men on the board voted to support Joyce and table the motion, and he remained in his job until poor health forced his retirement in 1929 after almost exactly 26 years.
(McBirnie, by the way, ruffled the wrong feathers and after a mysterious explosion at his house, he left town--“has gone where the woodbine twineth,” according to the Evening News.)
His death was not unexpected, according to the newspapers. Following his passing, March 26, 1936, at age 62 from “cirrhosis of the liver, dropsy and complications,” the popular Journal-News writer Stella Weiler Taylor, in her column "Rosemary, That's for Remembrance," wrote, “Just roused from my dream... by the arrival of the Journal-News with the handsome picture of Darrell Joyce and the sad news of his passing. It was in the Straub House days that I first saw the dark-eyed little boy who later became a civic leader and superintendent of the schools of Hamilton. His father, Major Robert Joyce, gallant Civil War veteran... had a residence at Venice but spent most of each week, because of his official duties, in Hamilton. A tiny hall bedroom, marked No. 3, just over the Main Street entrance to the hotel was the major's room. Major Joyce was quite of the type of Gen. Grant, bearded, soldierly, erect and very kindly.”
Professor Joyce had three brothers survive him, but he and his wife had no children. In 1955 Henrietta Joyce made a gift to the city of Hamilton 227 acres of land that would become Darrell Joyce Park. Additional gifts from the family brought the acreage up to the current 313.
The First Residents of Fairfield
When the white settlers first began arriving in the Great Miami River valley in the late 1700s, the Native Americans occupying the land were a constant threat and a source of great interest.
As early as 1833, pioneer historian James McBride and engineer John W. Erwin surveyed the area now occupied by the city of Fairfield and recorded numerous earthworks or mounds, particularly in the vicinity of Gray, River, and Muskopf roads. In 1836, McBride surveyed what is known as the Fortified Hill, a large earthen wall eight-to-teen feet high about a half-mile from the Great Miami River on the west bank three miles south of Hamilton, enclosing 28 acres with six gateways and a 50-foot high mound that the surveyors surmised served as a watchtower.
In his book Biographical and Historical Sketches, 1905 historian Steven Cone described an 1821 excavation of a mound near Symmes Corner in which M.P. Alston and John Maxwell recovered a skeleton, “apparently that of a very large man... The boys of that day treated the skull with little veneration and used it as a football on the green... Among other things was a very good parrot, fashioned of clay and apparently dried in the sun. The resemblance to that bird was so plain as to make clearly evident what it was intended to represent.”
Because of his interest in the mounds, James McBride became an acknowledged expert in the field during his day, and local farmers accumulated large collections of Indian artifacts as they went about their day-to-day business, most of it in the form of stone implements, but Robert Livingston, who lived on a farm near the Hamilton County line and the Great Miami found pieces of decorative copper as well as highly-polished stones.
These structures were created in the first century B.C.E. by the Hopewell culture. The plows and bulldozers of the past two centuries have all but obliterated these structures, and those that remain are mostly on private land and their locations protected.
In 1788, Judge John Cleves Symmes of New Jersey heard reports from a friend of the fertile lands and dense forests in the area between the Little Miami and Great Miami rivers. Symmes formed the Miami Company and purchased some 330,000 acres of it, including what is today Fairfield. Although much of the early history of Butler County is focused on the activities around Fort Hamilton, the armies of General Arthur St. Clair and General Anthony Wayne blazed trails that became Pleasant Avenue and Dixie Highway, now the major north-south Fairfield corridors.
In 1795, Judge Symmes gave his nephew Celadon Symmes, a New Jersey silversmith, a large tract of land bounded by what is now Symmes Road, Dixie Highway, Nilles Road, and Pleasant Avenue, the heart of present-day Fairfield. He is credited with being the first citizen and subsequently gave portions of the land to various family members. Celadon Symmes was elected justice of the peace when Butler County was formed in 1803 and in 1806 chosen by the state legislature to be an associate judge of the Butler County Court of Common Pleas.
A village started taking shape around 1830 when his son Benjamin Randolph Symmes built a tavern at what became known as Symmes Corner. His 1852 building still stands at the corner of Nilles Road and Pleasant Avenue.
Celadon’s half-brother was Captain John Cleves Symmes, a Revolutionary war hero who concocted the infamous Hollow Earth Theory memorialized by a monument in Hamilton.
Another prominent Fairfield pioneer was Matthew Hueston, who purchased two hundred acres of woods in 1800. A native of Franklin County, Pennsylvania, born 1771, Hueston took up the trade of a tanner at age 15. He accumulated a store of stock and got on a boat going down the Ohio River and landed in Cincinnati to sell some four or five hundred dollars worth of leather goods. That done, he began working as a tanner again, then helped Robert and William McClellan drive a brigade of pack horses from Cincinnati to Fort Jefferson. On a second trip, he drove a herd of cattle the same route and with the proceeds opened a store in Cincinnati and began to accumulate a small fortune. He lost it, however, after falling ill with a fever in 1796 while in Greenville and upon returning to Cincinnati found that his partner had squandered their property gambling and fled town.
After paying off the debts, he again turned to driving cattle and took 350 head from Cincinnati to Detroit as a contractor for the army. It took him forty days, but he managed to re-establish his fortune.
By 1800, McBride wrote in his “Pioneer Biographies,” “by perseverance, industry, and economy, he had paid off all the old debts against him, and accumulated some fourteen hundred or fifteen hundred dollars in hard cash. This he determined to lay out in the purchase of land, under the impression that land could not be so easily dissipated as some of his property had heretofore been.”
Although the 200 acres he purchased was “altogether in the woods,” he turned it into a profitable farm. He built a log house and turned it into a road-house for travelers. As a host, Hueston developed a reputation as “an agreeable and entertaining social companion and an amiable man... He possessed a fund of anecdote, and could relate many of the transactions which occurred in those days.” He was personally acquainted with Simon Kenton and many of the officers of the army under the command of General Wayne.
He diligently purchased property with his profits and eventually became one of the largest property holders in Butler and Preble County, including the 3,000 or so acres that would a few generations later, when the last of his line had died, become Hueston Woods State Park.
In 1808 he was elected a justice of the peace and remained on his Fairfield Township farm until 1813 when he moved to the other side of the river, to Hanover Township.
In future articles, we will take a look at the different villages that would become a part of the city of Fairfield, and then at the citizen’s effort in the 1950s to establish “the City of Opportunity.”
The Notorious Village of Stockton
Stockton, one of the four villages that were to be incorporated into the city of Fairfield, got its start as a railroad stop first known as Jones Station.
In 1822, civil engineer Henry S. Earheart was but 22 years old when he planted the bug in the ear of John Woods, prominent Hamilton attorney and businessman, that a railroad might be good for local commerce.
“Mr. Woods took an active interest in the matter and with Mr. Earheart obtained subscriptions enough to defray the expenses of a preliminary survey,” according to a historical article in a 1925 edition of the Hamilton Daily News. When it came time to do the survey, John W. Erwin, who laid out the course of the Miami-Erie canal and a well-known civil engineer, had been contracted to do the survey, but was not able to join the party until later.
It took a few years, but in 1851, Earheart set out from the south end of Third Street in Hamilton, with his two sons, surveyor George R. Bigham on the compass line, and a commissary. The surveyors crossed the ponds at the south end of Hamilton and laid their course toward the John H. Jones farm before the Jones family had arrived, and camped out there on their second day.
“The country was all woods and the men forced to stake their way through every 100 feet because of the sparsely settled territory,” the article relates.
Because they were going through cornfields, essentially trespassing, “they were careful as they could be, bending the corn to one side in the rows in order to run their line.”
At one point, the owner of one of the farms they were passing through came out and said, “What are you doing here? Is that you, Mr. Earhart?”
“Yes,” he answered. It is me and I am running a railroad line from Hamilton to Cincinnati.”
“Well,” said the farmer, “I think they had better send you to a lunatic asylum.”
One of the most famous residents of Jones Station was the noted Civil War spy Charlotte “Lottie” Moon. While a debutante in Oxford, Lottie amused herself in a friendly competition with her sister Virginia as to who could rack up the most engagements. Virginia apparently won the competition with sixteen engagements compared to Lottie’s twelve. One of them was Ambrose E. Burnside, who would later become a prominent general in the Union Army. Burnside got her as far as the altar, but when the minister got to the part “Will you take this man...” the high-spirited Lottie answered, “No, siree, Bob, I won’t,” and walked out.
Another more determined suitor, James Clark, who would be a justice of the Ohio Supreme Court, brought a gun along when he got Lottie to the altar, saying as he poked it into her ribs, “There will be a wedding here tonight or a funeral tomorrow.”
When he retired from the bench, Mr. and Mrs. Clark retired to Jones Station and a life of spying. Clark was a member of the Knights of the Golden Circle, a group that opposed the Civil War and sought union with the South. With a family history in Virginia and Tennessee, Lottie and her sister Ginnie both engaged in spying for the Confederacy. While it’s now difficult to separate the facts from the legend, it is said that Lottie, disguised as an Irish washwoman, feigned sleep while sharing a carriage with Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of War Edward Stanton, and with them inspected the Army of the Potomac. When finally informed of her true identity, Stanton put out a $10,000 reward for her, “dead or alive.” She was eventually captured by her former beau, General Burnside, who kept her under house arrest for a time, but eventually let her go.
The Stockton name comes from an early country doctor of the area, Richard C. Stockton Reed, a descendant of Richard Cummings Stockton, a New Jersey signer of the Declaration of Independence. Dr. Reed was dean of the Medical College in Cincinnati, and purchased 80 acres of land in Fairfield Township in 1868, naming the farm for his mother’s family.
The name was changed from Jones Station to Stockton in 1882, and the village of Stockton was platted in 1883 and recorded September 1, 1885. It was west of Seward (then Cooper) Road, between the CH&D Railroad and Springfield Pike, now Ohio 4. The Stockton School was located at the southeast corner of Ross Road and Ohio 4. The name changed back and forth a few times, but the Stockton Post Office and the railroad station closed in 1922.
During the Prohibition Era, the Stockton Club at the northeast corner of Dixie Highway and Seward Road, was one of the classiest and most notorious speakeasies in the region, and it is widely reported to have been controlled by the powerful Purple Gang from Detroit and used to launder the money the gang earned from bootlegging, robberies, and extortion.
"People arrived in taxis from Cincinnati, Newport and Hamilton," the late historian Jim Blount wrote. "You found only the most expensive cars in the parking lot.
“Among the name musicians who performed there was Bix Beiderbecke, whose biographers have provided a description of the operation. Beiderbecke was at the club in 1923 and 1924... Its setup was a cliché of Prohibition-era America. The ground floor of the two-story frame house was split into halves, one for a gambling casino, the other a cafe operation, specializing in food of dubious quality and high-grade bootleg booze... There was a dance floor on the cafe side, where the band played from 9 in the evening until 3 in the morning. The upstairs housed caretakers and other club staff.”
The building burned down in 1940, just a few days after it closed.
Stockton was also the site of the Fairfield Dog Track, which operated on Ohio 4 between Gilmore Road and Michael Lane in the summers of 1927 and 1928.
According to Blount, “With an estimated betting take of $7,000 to $10,000 nightly, plus admission income, it was estimated that track owners recouped their original investment in only 12 nights. Stockholders in Springdale Amusement Company, its legal name, were never revealed. Opening night June 30, 1927, attracted more than 5,000 people.”
Although dog racing was illegal, the owners circumvented the law by not allowing betting on the eight races a night, but by selling “certificates” of ownership for $2 a share, like buying stock.
After each race, "dividends" were declared on the winning dogs and the "shareholders" displayed their "certificates" to claim their payment.
But, Blount said, if they couldn’t get to the tracks, they could still place bets through the several bookies operating in the area.
James K. Cullen
The Prince of Salesmen
The Prince of Salesmen
City historians a hundred years ago were fond of the phrase “There were giants in those days” when talking about the local industrialists of the late nineteenth century.
Few of those giants stood taller than James K. Cullen. There’s no street named for him, no specific monument to his effort (although at one time there was a boat named after him), but his impact was profound in his day and lasts well into ours.
A native of the Walnut Hills neighborhood of Cincinnati, James Kenmore Cullen was born in 1853 and began learning the machinery trade on the Cincinnati Hamilton and Dayton Railway company. There, and later at the Big Four Railroad, his work ethic and quick learning earned him frequent promotions to foreman and draughtsman.
On June 9, 1879, age 26, he came to Hamilton to work as a foreman for the Niles Tool Works and quickly worked his way up to factory superintendent. That same year, he married Miss Addie Barnes of Cincinnati and they settled in Hamilton. To this union two children were born, William D. Cullen and Webb Cullen, the latter dying in New York City following his return from service in the first World War.
In 1886, Cullen went to Chicago to manage western business for Niles. He lived there for eight years while developing business with the Chicago railroads and earned the nickname “the prince of salesmen,” not only because of his intimate knowledge of his goods, but for his “exceptional affability, his genuine courtesy, and his ability to make close friends.” His effort there is credited with giving the Niles Tool Works its world-wide reputation.
On his return to Hamilton he became secretary, then treasurer, and in 1900 president of Niles Tool Works, replacing Robert McKinney, who as the result of a merger moved to New York to be president of the new Niles Bement Pond Co. When McKinney died in 1915, Cullen took that New York presidency, holding it until 1925 when the merger dissolved and he returned to Hamilton to finish out his career as president of the Niles Tool Works.
But even when living in Chicago or New York, Cullen considered Hamilton his home and was for 50 years “an outstanding figure in the industrial, civic and social life of Hamilton,” according to his obituary in the Hamilton Daily News.
“This was at a period in the development of the city when he was one of a group of strong and forceful men who wrought powerfully and constructively in the growth and upbuilding of Hamilton.”
The project touted as Hamilton’s first community effort, the building of the YMCA, started under Cullen’s leadership in 1910. He created a body known as “The Committee of 100” that included the city’s top industrialists, business and professional men.
In just 10 days, the Committee of 100 raised $150,000 for the building of a YMCA in Hamilton, and were on such a roll that they extended the drive for one more day to raise another $15,000 for an addition to Mercy Hospital.
The campaign was lauded as one of “the most successful ever put over anywhere,” the Daily News said, and drew the admiration of civic leaders across the country. “These campaigns resulted in awakening greater civic pride than had ever been known before and demonstrated to the community the power that existed in the cooperation of all the citizens of the community in forwarding the interests of Hamilton.”
But they weren’t finished yet. The Committee of 100 went on to create an industrial fund of $50,000 and raised $30,000 for a Salvation Army citadel.
And when the 1913 flood destroyed much of downtown Hamilton--including the under-construction YMCA building--and left the Niles Tool Works in virtual ruins, Cullen assumed leadership of flood relief with the Committee of 100 serving as his lieutenants. Cullen was instrumental in bringing the Red Cross to Hamilton at that time.
With the bridges washed away after the flood, the county commissioners had a ferry built, the first public means of crossing the river after the disaster. It was dubbed “The J.K. Cullen.”
After his departure for New York City in 1914, Mr. and Mrs. Cullen presented their home on Dayton Street to the Community Home for the Aged during the holiday season, along with a $40,000 cash gift to renovate it. The gift was kept secret until May of the following year when the property was remodeled and dedicated.
While Cullen was in New York during World War I, the remnants of the Committee continued his work in spirit by conducting five highly successful Liberty Bonds drives.
“While Mr. Cullen did much in a public way he did much more that was only known to himself and the recipients,” said the Daily News. “No worthy project ever was turned down by him. Always he was ready and willing to help, even when demands made upon him were most numerous and heavy.”
Cullen was known as a great storyteller, but his stories were always wholesome, and could recite a remarkable number of poems from memory. He was proud of his Scotch ancestry and heritage, well-versed in the history of Scotland and all of its customs.
Although he was described as “a staunch Republican” and on the board for the Republican Daily News, he never ran for office himself but would take a stump for candidates of both parties. In 1913, with the Socialist party in power in Hamilton, Cullen was the force behind the formation of “the Citizen’s ticket,” a combined effort of Democrats and Republicans to elect Charles Mason as the next mayor.
In 1927, Cullen’s wife died and his own health began to fail him as he suffered with diabetes. He continued to work, but his colleagues seemed to know that his time was short. In June, 1929, the Rentschler family organized a meeting of the the boards of three corporations Cullen was associated with as a guise for throwing a surprise party celebrating his 50th anniversary in Hamilton. The day began with a business meeting, but turned into a large luncheon at the fairgrounds and an evening celebration at the Rentschler country estate, where Cullen was presented with a large engraved silver bowl, 18 inches high and 24 inches in diameter. It said, in part, “He was a leader when leading was hard. A man who gave all that was in him.”
The following summer, his son and his family took him to a spa at Hot Springs, Virginia, hoping to improve his condition. He seemed to improve a little for a week or so, but then lay down to take a nap at 7 p.m. one evening and could not be awakened. Doctors determined he had an apoplectic stroke and he died three days later, July 31, 1930.
Even though he was a life-long Republican, the Democratic newspaper in Hamilton, The Evening Journal, also sang his praises, and even gave him a larger obituary than the Daily News.
“His vision extended beyond the horizon of his immediate surroundings, to the city in which he lived, the neighbors with whom he associated and the great human family of which he was a member,” the paper editorialized apart from the obituary. “The result was that the influence of Mr. Cullen’s life soon touched every other life in Hamilton... He was a man who’s loyalty to Hamilton was never doubted, whose greatest joy, aside from the happiness of his home life, was to see the community prosper. As his opportunities broadened he did not hesitate to use them in that public service which means for the upbuilding of a great community life, a city with a soul.”
In 1929, the following poem was written by Harry Varley in celebration of James K. Cullen’s 50 years in Hamilton:
Call him a salesman--the best in his line
Tell of his years of endeavor;
Toast him in rarest of sparkling old wine,
Praise him for failing us never.
Boast of the riches he made for the firm
Back in its hey-day of glory;
Say how he helped when hard times made us squirm
Cheering with smile and with story.
But when his record of service is read,
There’ll be one tribute we owe him,
Far greater than any our poor words have said
A tribute from all men who know him
We’ll drink to a friend who has always been
A gentleman through to the bone
As faithful in each of the smallest he knew
As he was in the biggest he’s known.
For each silver hair on his head there’s a man
Who gratefully calls him “my friend.”
Who’ll stick it with him through life’s uttermost span
And wish him good luck in the end.
So we who are here of the measureless host;
We’ll fill up his bowl to the brim
Then drain every glass to the heart-meaning toast--
“Here’s health, life and love to our Jim.”
Hamilton's Broadway Baby
Hamilton's Broadway Baby
On May 7, 1895, one of America’s up-and-coming leading men, Robert T. Haines came to Hamilton for a production of a play titled “Ingomar, son Of the Wilderness” at the Globe Theater.
The supporting roles were filled by local talent, including one beautiful young Genevieve Smith Harrison, who was not only a hometown girl, but also Haines’s new bride. They had been married March 14 that year in New Orleans. Genevieve also had a promising career. She generally played ingenue roles and spent some time with the James O’Neill traveling company featuring the father of famed American playwright Eugene O’Neill. The Irish-born elder O’Neill who got his professional start in Cincinnati.
She starred in “Ingomar” as Parthenia. The play was a “Grand Success,” according to the Daily Republican reviewer, and young Genevieve “completely captivated the audience by her ease and confidence.” She also apparently captivated Mr. Hines.
According to historian and newspaper columnist Stella Weiler Taylor, Haines made many lasting friends during his summer in Hamilton, but more importantly, he married Genevieve Harrison, and together they made a brief but brilliant flash on Broadway and the international stage.
Haines was born in Muncie, Indiana, in a strict Quaker family, but raised in Kansas City, Kansas. He went to law school in Missouri and practiced law for a year before the acting bug got the best of him and he moved to New York. A feature in the Topeka State Journal described him as “a fine specimen of physical manhood, being over six feet tall and would be noticeable whether on or off the stage for his military bearing. His eyes are large and brown and his hair is dark.”
It seems his career took off, and when he started landing plum roles as the leading man opposite some of the top actresses of the day, Genevieve would take understudy roles in the same plays so that she could travel with him. She was a good sport about it, though. “She is very ambitious for him and it is her dearest wish to see him starring with his own company.”
In 1901, Genevieve gave up the bright footlights and turned to writing plays for her husband. She would tell reporters that playwriting was her main interest all along and that it was her husband who encouraged her to retire from the stage and turn to writing full-time. She liked to quip that her first effort at playwriting at the age of 8 was titled “A Waif of the Rocky Mountains,” “with an accent on the rocky.”
After composing a number of melodramas for amateur companies, she adapted her first hit, “Hearts Aflame,” from a magazine story, which she developed while her husband starred in long-running drama “In the Palace of the King.” One review described her play as depicting “the foibles and vices of New York’s Fifth Avenue set-the degenerates of the upper world.”
“Hearts Aflame” was first picked up by the Broadway actress Amelia Bingham, but at the first rehearsal, the star realized that her character was not in some of the most important scenes. She insisted that Genevieve re-write it to give the role more prominence. Genevieve declined to do so and declined to permit anyone else to touch it up. So Bingham stopped rehearsals and released the play, but Genevieve kept the $1,000 advance.
“That aroused my fighting blood,” she told a reporter, “and I determined that my play should be produced if I had to produce it myself.”
Indignant but undaunted, Genevieve shopped the play around and finally, in May 1902, mounted a production at the Garrick Theatre on Broadway with her husband now in the role she wrote for him. After a successful week at the Garrick, the play went on a long tour of the Eastern United States and Canada.
Although she was now a behind-the-scenes writer and producer, she cut a glamorous figure: “A petite, but well-rounded figure... a face that might easily be pronounced chrubuc... dimpled and extraordinarily childish and innocent while in repose... heavy lashes veiling dark eyes... a wealth of chestnut hair simply dressed and an utterly kissable mouth,” according to a feature in the Buffalo Courier in the summer of 1902.
“Hearts Aflame” was a big-enough hit to buy a seaside home in Connecticut and for her to form a stock company to perform her plays.
In 1904 she premiered a romantic comedy titled “Once Upon a Time,” again starring Robert Haines. “The new play is Spanish in atmosphere and coloring, but is modern in period, and it’s romance is sprinkled with fun.” It also earned some notoriety because the leading actor strikes an actress in the face as a climax to one of the acts, which caused some resentment among theater-goers. It was not a hit in New York, closing after a week. Genevieve garnered some bad press when during one of the early performances people began to walk out.
“Standing at the back of the orchestra seats, she was visibly annoyed at some persons leaving and called out loudly: ‘Sit down! You’ve no right to spoil the play! Usher, hold those doors!’ A gentleman who was at the door with two children mildly said, “I have a train to catch,” and exit was permitted him. Other, more timorous, remained standing until the final curtain.”
In 1908, she returned to the stage in her newest play “Buchanan of the Times,” co-starring her husband. She played a Russian princess, and he played an American war correspondent. The play received some snarky reviews: “She is so handsome that it would be hard to say her play was bad if I thought so. Therefore it is lucky not to think so.”
After that, the historical trail dies out of Genevieve Smith Harrison Haines. The 1910 census lists Robert T. Haines as divorced, living in a New York City boarding house. Her father’s 1914 obituary gives her name as Mrs. Genevieve Durrand and living in Europe, and her mother’s 1917 obituary doesn’t mention her at all, so she may have died sometime in between.
The Great Flood of 1913
The Centerpiece of Hamilton History
The Centerpiece of Hamilton History
Other than the founding of Fort Hamilton itself, no singular event in the history of Hamilton has had a greater impact than the Great Flood of 1913, which not forever changed the landscape in profound ways that can still be seen today, but instilled in the citizenry a dread of the river that took nearly a century to overcome.
“For many survivors of the 1913 flood,” writes local historian Jim Blount in his 2002 book “Butler County’s Greatest Weather Disaster — March 1913,” “… the emotional scars remained for a lifetime. Terrifying flood memories caused people to turn their backs on the flood.”
The rushing waters of the Great Miami River covered more than 80 percent of the city as it existed at the time, washing away bridges, businesses, and houses, claiming hundreds of lives and destroying what remained of the canal and hydraulic systems.
Hamiltonians tend to think of the event as “our” flood, but all throughout the Midwest and even as far as the Hudson River in Troy, N.Y., the water that fell set records in Terra Haute, Ind., Omaha, Neb. and Council Bluffs, Iowa, in addition to the cities along the Great Miami.
The weather system that resulted in the Great Flood of 1913 was “the most wide-spread disaster in the history of the United States,” according to Trudy E. Bell, author of the Arcadia book The Great Dayton Flood of 1913. “For Ohio and Indiana, it was a one-two punch,” she said in a presentation commemorating the centennial of the disaster.
It had been a wet and rainy winter. The ground was saturated and the river ran high through January. Going into Good Friday (March 21), temperatures were unseasonably warm, around 70 degrees, when an arctic cold from swooped down into the Midwest and the temperature dropped 50 degrees in six hours. For the next four days, four different low pressure systems pinned the front down and created a trough diagonally across the country. Although it was unknown at the time, the jet stream acted like a pump to draw moisture in from Caribbean to cover Ohio. The next four days saw eleven inches of rain in some parts of the Great Miami Valley.
Still, the flood came as somewhat of a surprise. While all eyes were anxiously on the rising river, the walls of the hydraulic reservoir in the North End collapsed, sending a veritable tidal wave down Fourth and Fifth streets into the downtown area.
On the morning of Tuesday, March 25, 1913, there were three bridges and one railroad bridge crossing the Great Miami River in Hamilton. Shortly after noon on March 25, 1913, they began to fall, almost like dominoes. At 12:12, the Black Street Bridge failed. Within a half hour, the High-Main Bridge failed, followed quickly by the railroad bridge. Around 2 a.m. Wednesday morning, when the flood was at its peak, the Hamilton Coliseum loosened from its foundation at B Street and Wayne Avenue, floated downstream and crashed into the Columbia Bridge. When it went down, the city was again divided in two.
By the time the waters receded, some 300 buildings were destroyed by the flood waters and another 2,000 had to be razed because of the damage. Even today, people are pulling clumps of “flood mud” out of German Village basements.
The death toll in Hamilton has historically been estimated at around 200 souls, but was probably much greater than that. As part of the 100th anniversary commemoration, the Butler County Historical Society combed through records to create a database of casualties, including those who died in the weeks and months later from the lingering health and safety effects.
Blount said that bodies turned up for months and years downstream, but because there was no DNA testing at the time and the science of fingerprinting still in infancy, it’s been difficult to get an accurate body count, but it could be as high or higher than 400.
We need not fear the river any longer. From that disaster came the largest public works project of the day, the Miami Conservancy District, which served as a model for similar plans throughout the country. Because of its efforts, it would take twice the amount of rainfall in March 1913 for the river to take Hamilton again.
Within a year, the Ohio General Assembly passed the Conservancy Act of Ohio, and community leaders up and down the Great Miami Valley petitioned to form the Miami Conservancy District, which was established in 1915.
Together they worked out a funding system and raised the bond money, about $35 million. Construction began in 1918 and was finished in 1922. It was the largest public works project of its day, but they put it on the fast track.
More than 3,000 workers were involved in the project as much of the work was performed by hand.
The chief engineer behind the project was Arthur Morgan, who sent a group of surveyors, known as “Morgan’s Cowboys”, down the river with buckets of paint, asking people where the high water was and they would mark buildings. Because flood records in American only went back 100 years or so, he studied European flood history so he could track trends.
Morgan developed innovative flood control techniques, including the invention of “dry” dams, which were constructed with permanent openings in their walls, sized to allow the passage of no more water than the river channel downstream could safely carry away. His model of dry dams to retain water has been replicated all over the country, including the Tennessee Valley Authority, which Morgan later ran, and in many parts of the world.
Although much of the city had to be rebuilt, the most visible change in the landscape came in the river itself. Before 1913, the river had an hourglass shape. North of the city, it was 600 feet wide, narrowing to 340 feet at the Black Street Bridge and was 390 feet wide at the High-Main Bridge, and spread out again south of the city. Because of the work done by the Miami Conservancy District, the river channel is now 540 feet at the High-Main Bridge. The difference can be seen in the markers that Jim Blount and his wife Jackie donated and had installed on the bridge.
Still, it took a long time for Hamilton to face the river again and not fear its waters. Indeed, it wasn’t until the last part of the century that the emotional wounds seemed healed enough for Hamilton to renew its relationship with the Great Miami River. With the construction of the low-level dam off Neilan Boulevard in the early 1980s, citizens once again began using the river for recreation, and city leaders now see Riverfront development as an integral part of Hamilton’s future.
Adena Meyers and Rose Haines
Adena Meyers and Rose Haines
The names Adena Meyers and Rose Haines are rarely at the forefront of discussion on Hamilton’s history, but in their day, both exhibited remarkable leadership, most notably in regard to the women’s suffrage movement.
Adena Meyers, born November 19, 1869, was the adopted daughter of Fairfield Township farmers Edward and Maria Meyers. As a young woman she set her sights on a career in law and worked as a stenographer for the Hamilton firm of Morey, Andrews, and Morey, whose partners included a U.S. Congressman and a county prosecutor. She was an active member of the local chapter of the Epworth Chautauqua Circle, a cultural society whose meetings included literary readings, musical recitals, and essays delivered by its members. Meyers spoke on such diverse topics as geology and medieval art.
In June 1898, Meyers graduated as the first woman graduate ever in a class of 46 from the University of Cincinnati’s law school, and became the first female member of the bar in Butler County when she joined the same firm she worked for. She passed the bar exam in Columbus with honors, near the top of the crop of which she was the only woman. Both local and regional press took note, the Daily Democrat calling her “a young woman of unusual ability and a bright future is predicted for her in her chosen field,” and the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune echoing, “She is a young lady of marked ability and has completed the course with a showing that justifies high hopes for future work.”
In July 1912, Meyers was present at the first-ever “aeroplane” flight in Hamilton as she entertained noted “professional suffragist” Louise Hall, who was actively organizing suffragist chapters in Ohio in advance of what would be a failed vote on the matter. The pilot was noted aviator Charles Francis Walsh, founder of the first airplane manufacturing plant in California, but at the time a demonstration pilot for the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company. His late morning flight from the Butler County Fairgrounds lasted about ten minutes, achieving an altitude between 700 and 800 feet, and included a few stunts and several circles around the infirmary on Poor House Hill. When he landed, a reporter for the Evening Journal introduced him to Hall and Meyers. While Hall pressed upon Walsh to take her on a flight, Walsh wanted to discuss women’s suffrage, as California had just given women the right to vote. “He promised to even support the cause in Ohio and to drop literature from the airplane this afternoon providing the Ohio women did not vote the state dry,” the Journal reported. “He was assured an answer to this joke that such would not be done,” although Miss Meyers was also a noted member of a local temperance union. Walsh, incidentally, would die in a crash in New Jersey three months later.
For the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson in March 1913, Adena Meyers led a delegation of Hamilton suffragists, men and women, to the Woman Suffrage Procession, the first large, organized march on Washington for political purposes. Adena and the Hamilton delegation went to Columbus to ride on “The Ohio Woman Special” train. Meyers carried with her several bright yellow banners that she had created for the failed Ohio vote.
Attendance reports vary wildly, but the procession included between five and ten thousand participants, with an estimated 500,000 looking on. The procession met with counter-protestors, and 200 people were injured.
When she returned from the procession, Meyers filed an 800-word report with the Evening Journal, calling the event “beyond description and was the marvel of all who beheld it.” The trouble, she asserted, was started by “the modern rude instincts of children, boys and ill-bred and drunken men to good-naturedly ridicule almost everything at a time when they think they can do so without fear from any source.” When things got hostile, the police proved to be ineffective, and it was at the urging of senators and U.S. representatives in the procession that order was restored.
In 1916, Rose Giddings Haines took over leadership of the Butler County Equal Suffrage Association with Adena Meyers becoming press chairman. Mrs. Haines was the wife of Henry H. Haines and was about six years older than Adena Meyers. Henry Haines, a nephew to Congressman Morey, came to Hamilton to practice law in 1893, and his wife became one of the great behind-the-scenes movers in the city, not only in the promotion of women’s rights, but as one of the three women elected to public office immediately after suffrage was one, serving from 1922 to 1927 on the Hamilton Board of Education.
Rose Haines was in 1920 was a charter member and would be second president of the Hamilton Women’s Club. Far more than a social circle, the Women’s Club was also active in political and civic scenes, helping to create better garbage service and eliminating dumps on Eaton Road and Peck’s Addition by presenting petitions to city council. The Women’s Club was responsible for installing traffic lights and signs, the planting of trees, building sanitary facilities at the county fairgrounds, and investigating the safety of local dairies and milk producers.
But as Mrs. Haines would herself declare, the Women’s Club’s greatest achievement was its role in establishing Hamilton’s first charter government.
“In its infancy, the executive board initiated a well-planned program extending over a period of three years for the study of a commission form of government,” she wrote. The club created and distributed literature and formed a speaker’s bureau to promote its ideas. The new form of government was passed in the November 1925 election.
When she died in 1945, her obituary stated, “Though she possessed a most forceful personality, Mrs. Haines was ever a lovely lady, gracious and thoughtful of others.”
Adena Meyers died April 29, 1949, and is buried at Greenwood Cemetery.
A Ticker Tape Parade for
C. Hooven Griffis
C. Hooven Griffis
Through the years, Hamilton had many brave men join the military and fight for the America cause on foreign soil, but few war stories include ticker tape parades and national headlines for their heroic acts.
The story of Corliss Hooven Griffis, a veteran of World War I, exceeds includes a daring adventure back to Germany after the war that made national headlines.
Griffis’s father was the president of the American Frog and Switch Co. of Hamilton and his mother was of the Hooven family, reflected by his first and middle names. But his pedigree from industrial Hamilton didn’t deter him from doing his duty and going beyond. “Griffis saw real service overseas,” reported the Hamilton Daily News, “and was gassed. In severe fighting at the front as a Sergeant in the Eightythird Division, the outfit he trained and went across with from Camp Sherman, he fell victim to the fumes of the poisonous vapor launched by the enemy and before he could recover and rejoin the division the armistice ended his chance to retaliate. Returning to Hamilton, Griffis was the first Adjutant of the Durwin Post of the American Legion formed there. He was also a First Lieutenant in the Adjutant General’s Office of the Ohio National Guard.”
After defeating “the Hun,” Griffis found another nemesis in the body of one Grover Cleveland Bergdoll, who was also the scion of American industry. His grandfather founded the Louis Bergdoll & Sons Brewing Company of Philadelphia, from whom “Groff” inherited a million dollars while in his 20s. Rather than join the family business or put his money to good use, Groff became somewhat famous as an amateur aviator and record-setting race car driver. He was also a first-class rich brat and world-class slacker. Before the war, his reckless driving caused an accident that injured six people in an incident that ended with Groff knocking down a policeman. He was acquitted.
And when it came time for him to serve his country in the war, he decided to go to Mexico instead and avoid the draft. Two years later, after the war in May 1920, Groff was arrested at his family’s mansion in Philadelphia when federal officials found him hiding in a bay window box, covered with blankets. He was to face a court martial and a possible death penalty, but his family connections earned him a chance to await trial from the comfort of home instead of prison. He left the disciplinary barracks at Fort Jay on Governors Island, New York, in a jolly mood and without handcuffs, regaling his guards with stories of his exploits. The guards were to remain with him at the family estate and they were, the papers said, “entertained royally” playing billiards, guffawing at his Shakespeare parodies, and generally being lulled into enough complacency that no one followed him when he left the room to answer a phone call. He didn’t come back, and was next seen in the town of Eberbach, living the high life on the lam in a hotel owned by his uncle and a hero to the locals for refusing to take up arms against the Germans.
Meanwhile, the true war hero Griffis took a job with a newspaper syndicate to cover the post-war situation there, although there are some vague indications in newspaper accounts of what followed that the newspaper job was just a cover and Griffis was in the employ of the government or perhaps the American Legion. To the end, Griffis claimed his mission was self-financed and inspired by his visit to the battlefields. “The sight of those white crosses made me decide to bring Bergdoll back to the country he dishonored in order that he might be punished,” he said later. “It angered me to know that Bergdoll was living on the fat of the land while hundreds of American soldiers were lying under those crosses.”
On August 11, 1923, Griffis led a corps of six hired men, including a Russian prince and a French detective, armed with “revolvers, ropes, lead clubs and chloroform” in an assault on Groff Bergdoll’s hotel room in Eberbach. Two of the men hid in the room and emerged from a closet while Bergdoll was undressing. Bergdoll was armed and both men were shot, one fatally. From there, the mission turned to chaos and four of the remaining men, including Griffis, were arrested by German police. Bergdoll, he claimed, suffered a severe beating at their hands. In their possession was an American automobile formerly owned by the U.S. Army, rope ladders, blackjacks, and a supply of opiates. Because Bergdoll had been spending lavishly in Eberbach and was popular with the locals, even overtures from the State Department could not get Griffis and his cohorts out of jail. The plan had been to kidnap the deserter, transport him to more friendly soil in Paris, and from there bring him to justice in a court martial.
Nothing was heard from Griffis for two weeks after his arrest, until an American journalist tracked his party down in a prison in Wurzburg and was granted an interview in the presence of German officers. When asked if he had anything to say to the folks back home, Griffis said, “Tell them that I love my country better than life.” The prisoners were served soup three times a day and one sausage a week. Griffis was facing a trial and a possible 20 year sentence for attempted kidnapping and other charges.
In January 1924, a committee based in Chicago organized a petition drive containing 2,086,764 signatures--including 19 governors, 17 Congressmen and 208 mayors--that was presented to the German government asking for Griffis’s release. He said it was because of this and other gestures of support from the United States that he received a relatively light sentence of the time he had already spent in jail and a lifetime banishment from Germany. He was deported as “undesirable.”
When he returned to the United States in February 1924, he was received a hero. No fewer than 15 movie cameras and 35 still photographers greeted him as he stepped from the boat in New York harbor. The cameras and accolades followed him on a sort of victory tour that took him to Chicago before he arrived in Hamilton on February 15. A parade that included a marching band followed him to the family home on B Street, and the Chamber of Commerce held a banquet in his honor that evening.
Griffis remained humbled and low-key by the entire experience. “I intend to be as good an American as I can be and live quietly in my own country.”
Johnny S. Black
Hamilton’s Hard-Luck Troubadour
Hamilton’s Hard-Luck Troubadour
Although his career had more downs than ups, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Johnny S. Black earned his fame with two major hits. He reaped a fortune from one, posthumous fame from the other.
Born September 30, 1891, Black was the only child of John L. and Jeanie Black. His family moved to Hamilton from St. Louis, where his father operated a music store. His father was a one-man-band vaudeville act, and by the time Johnny was 14 he played cornet, violin, piano, and drums. He performed for a while with his father and then started his own one-man band. At the age of 17, he left Hamilton for Chicago, where he scraped out a living with the one-man-band act, wowing Windy City audiences by playing two cornets at the same time.
From there, he went to New York where he also worked as a prizefighter. While there, he composed the two songs that earned him his fame (and an Ohio Historical Marker near RiversEdge Amphitheatre).
Although it wasn’t a hit until nearly 30 years later, in 1915 “Paper Doll” was the first of the two hits that he wrote, but there are conflicting stories of its origins. One story says that the woman whom Black loved at the time, possibly his first wife, announced that she was leaving him as he prepared to enter the boxing ring for a bout at Madison Square Garden. She was in love with a songwriter, she said, not a boxer. Black lost the fight and composed the song for his lost love.
The alternate story says that the song was actually written under the title “My Doll” by a show girl, Shirley, who became Black’s first wife. This story does have some credibility in that after the song became a hit, Shirley was awarded a share of the royalties in federal court.
A couple of years later, Black wrote “Dardanella,” and the song received a Tin Pan Alley polish by Fred Fisher and Felix Bernard. “Dardanella” became a national success in 1919. The song’s success was tainted by a lawsuit that Bernard filed against Black, saying he only received $100 for writing the music while Black received $50,000 in royalties and only wrote the lyrics. Bernard admitted that he was a hungry composer and took the hundred bucks because the publisher told him “Dardanella” was too hard to play and wouldn’t sell. But it sold 1.6 million times as sheet music and six million times as a recorded instrumental. Most people didn’t even know that it had words.
After Black booked a New York gig at Coney Island on a bill with Jimmy Durante and Eddie Cantor, he soon was booking prestigious clubs in Manhattan. With his success, he started throwing lavish parties which attracted the stylish Broadway ladies and his drinking escalated. Although he reportedly earned as much as $50,000 from “Dardanella,” he had nothing to show for it. A smooth talker as well as a talented performer, Black was dubbed “the mystery man of Tin Pan Alley.”
He decided to try his luck in London and was modestly successful, but he spent more than he earned and was evicted from his hotel, which held on to his luggage and all of his instruments to partly satisfy the debt. In order to make his way back home, he walked to the London docks and got a job shoveling coal for a steam ship headed for New York.
Back in New York, 1924 or so, he met the young comic Joe E. Lewis. They became “The Dardanella Boys.” Although he was again earning money, Black’s drinking habit kept him broke, and he eventually sold or pawned everything he owned.
As a last-ditch effort to revive his career, Black threw a big dinner party in his apartment and invited all of New York’s top music publishers. At an opportune time, Black pulled out a violin and with a canary on his shoulder, played a tune he called “Paper Doll,” a re-working of the tune “My Doll” that his first wife might have written for him. His ploy worked. A little. A publisher gave him $25 cash for the tune, but it was only enough for Black to pay the catering bill for the party.
A few weeks later, his drinking proved too much for Lewis, and when the Dardanella Boys took their act to Chicago and Black hit the stage too blasted to perform, Lewis decided to go it alone. He became a major star, enjoying national stardom and sold out shows across the country, while Black continued his slide.
At age 33, Black returned to Hamilton where he finally hit rock bottom. He found himself in Judge Pater’s court on an intoxication charge. Knowing Black’s history, Judge Pater offered him a choice: write three songs in the next week or pay a $100 fine.
Black was so grateful for the second chance that he wrote five songs and teamed up with Harold Hovel, organist for the Rialto Theater and noted whistler. Their first gig was at a local social club and they booked the entire month of September 1929 in a Covington, Kentucky, radio station.
Though his comeback was modest, it was enough for him to leverage enough money to open up Club Dardanella in a former speakeasy on Dixie Highway in 1935. He married a second time, but it lasted less than a year when she filed for divorce on the grounds of unspecified acts of extreme cruelty and gross neglect.
Then one Friday night in June 1936, the day before his divorce was to be finalized, two young men and two very young women, all from Mt. Healthy, were having drinks at Club Dardanella. One of the young men asked Black, who was tending bar, for nickels for the jukebox. He gave Black a quarter and Black gave him a nickel. The man asked for the other four nickels and Black said he had “nothing coming.” A little later, Black and the other man argued over 70 cents in change left on the bar.
Subsequent testimony told conflicting stories about who first made the offer to settle the matter outside, but after about 15 minutes fussing around the bar, outside they went. All witnesses did agree on one thing: Just one punch was thrown, Black on the receiving end. He went down hard, hitting his head on the concrete front steps of his club. The young man who threw the punch helped Black’s mother and stepfather carry the unconscious Black to the kitchen, where they applied cold towels and revived him.
Black slept away the next day, missed his divorce hearing, and went back to work Sunday, but lapsed into unconsciousness again that night. His stepfather took him to Mercy Hospital, where he remained comatose until Tuesday, when he died.
Police located his assailant and charged him with murder, but the grand jury refused to indict him. It wasn’t clear that Johnny wasn’t asking for trouble.
His death did not end the Johnny S. Black story.
Six years later, the tune “Paper Doll,” the possibly-stolen song that paid Black’s catering bill revived the late songwriter’s career for one final encore. As it turned out, the publisher did indeed release the sheet music for “Paper Doll” in 1930, but never promoted it, and it slipped into obscurity. When the popular Mills Brothers from Dayton heard a cafe singer perform it, they had a hard time tracking down the publishing rights, but once they did, they sold over a million records, remained No. 1 on the charts for twelve weeks, and a second printing of the sheet music sold over 700,000 units.
A Hero in War and Murder
A Hero in War and Murder
“War is horrible,” Capt. Wesley G. Wulzen wrote home to his family near the end of World War I. “There is nothing romantic about it. It is nothing more or less than murder.”
In his illustrious career as a soldier and law enforcement officer, Wulzen knew a little about both murder and war.
Wesley Gebhart Wulzen was a teenager when he came to Hamilton as the son of an itinerant preacher who settled here in the waning years of the 19th century. The Rev. Henry Ehler Wulzen came to the United States as a missionary for the German Methodist Episcopal Church in Bremen, 1857. After a few years working for the church in downtown Cincinnati, he started traveling around the region, settling in small towns to build churches, staying a few years, then moving to the next town. He came to Hamilton in 1899 and stayed until his death in 1908.
Although he would later become a leading citizen of Hamilton and Butler County as the chief deputy sheriff under Luther Epperson, it seems young Wulzen wasn’t too fond of his early life in Hamilton, or perhaps he just felt the call to duty, but he ran away from home shortly after his family’s arrival in town to join the American effort in the Mexican war.
But he returned to Hamilton and as the nation prepared to go to war in Europe in 1916, Wulzen helped organize local men into Company E of the Ohio National Guard, proudly known as “the Cleveland Grays.” Afterwards, he was taken into national service with the 148th Infantry as a captain and spent much of World War I on the front lines of France.
He received his first injury there when his company was preparing a charge on German troops. He was in a trench with several other men tossing grenades at the enemy line when one of the grenades exploded prematurely in a soldier’s hand. Wulzen took pieces of shrapnel in the arm and chest, and was knocked unconscious for 15 minutes.
When he awoke, the soldier was standing over him, the stump of his arm wrapped in bloody bandages, saying, “Oh, captain, I’m so sorry. Are you hurt?”
In a letter home in August, 1918, Wulzen wrote, “If all the men in the army are like that fellow--not thinking of his own wounds but rather worried about the injuries of others--it will not take long to win this war.
Wulzen and Company E were also involved in the famous six-day battle near the little town of Avacourt, which he again told about in a letter home, published in the Hamilton Evening Journal on November 8, 1918.
“In spite of terrific fighting and hardships that I never thought flesh and blood could endure,” he wrote, “I am still on top... not much the worse for wear and tear.
He said his company had been in the forest for two days, enough time to build elaborate dugouts and trenches to live in relative comfort.
On the night of September 24, the company took up its formation “facing ‘No Man’s Land,’” and the American artillery barrage started promptly at 2:30 a.m.
“On either side of us as far as we could see there was a sheet of flame that lighted the heavens for miles ans with a roar that shook the earth, the bombardment was on,” he wrote.
Wulzen said he looked through the fog and smoke to see a valley about 1,000 yards across that looked like a bottomless pit with streams of red fire raining down in all directions.
The barrage lasted for three hours, until just before sunrise when Wulzen’s troops got the signal to go over thetop.
“We were glad to go,” he wrote, “as the long period of waiting had made most of us a trifle nervous.”
The smoke and mist were so thick that his platoons had to rely on their compasses to find their way to a thick forest overgrown with underbrush where they encountered “Huns with machine guns.”
The enemy soldiers, however, had been so shaken by the bombardment that “they surrendered after a little persuasion.”
The brigade broke through the forest that afternoon and met with more machine gun fire and some cannons in a village on their right flank, but another brigade crossed their path, took care of the machine guns and cannons, and Wulzen’s men were able to make camp for the night.
The next morning, they moved on around 6:30 a.m. with orders to attack the village of Ivory without any artillery to prepare the way.
“As we topped a hill and started down towards the village, the Hun artillery opened on us and dozens of hidden machine guns showered us with bullets,” Wulzen wrote. “This is where we suffered our first casualties, but the Germans… suffered even more, as they finally broke and ran up the hillside with our boys taking shots at them as they ran.”
They were met with “withering fire” as they took the hill. Wulzen tried to reach his major, whom he later found out had been “gassed”, and lacking any further orders stuck to the plan to hold the hill.
“At 4 p.m., we received orders to withdraw,” he wrote, “and believe me — we didn’t waste any time doing it.”
The company took shelter in a ravine, but it was so cold that Wulzen couldn’t sleep. At 3 a.m., his brigade was moved back to join the reserves and until 4 p.m. the next afternoon “we did very little but march around and dodge shells” until they got orders to march through the town of Cierges and entrench on the other side.
He wrote that they weren’t expecting any trouble because American troops were already well beyond that point.
“Everything went well until well until we entered a woods near the town, when suddenly all Hades broke,” he wrote. “The German artillery dropped shrapnel, high explosives and gas shells around us… machine gunners opened up… the place was alive with the bloody Huns.”
It was getting dark by this time, and in the confusion the brigade became separated, and his company and one other took refuge in the woods “under constant bombardment.”
“I received a good dose of sneezing gas in this place,” he said, “but it didn’t make me sick.”
They got orders to withdraw to a hill and dig in, but half-way up machine gunners “poured a stream of bullets into us… We lost several good men here.”
The survivors dug in, each man in a hole to himself, and they held the hill for two days “through the worst bombardment of the battle” without any assistance from artillery. A heavy rain began to fall the third night and continued for two days, making the roads impassable.
“The last two days and nights that I spent on that hill were the most miserable it has ever been my lot to live through,” Wulzen wrote.
Between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. on the sixth day, Co. E was relieved by a new outfit and they marched for six hours to the rear.
The experience, Wulzen wrote, “will make a peace advocate of every intelligent man who took part in the battle.”
After the war, he joined the Sheriff’s department, and it being during Prohibition, participated in many raids and tore down a number of stills. In one particularly heroic endeavor, he was in charge of a posse hunting down Milton Henson, the murderer of prohibition agent Wilbur Jacobs, when they found him in a hayloft in a barn outside Brookville, Indiana.
But perhaps his most exciting moment as a law enforcement officer came about quite unexpectedly in the middle of the night.
Wulzen and his family lived on Progress Avenue. Early on the morning of June 4, 1925, when his wife Gertrude awoke to the sound of gunshots. Many of them. She roused her husband, who dressed hurriedly and ran to the scene.
Although someone had already called the police, they had not yet arrived, and Wulzen found the neighbors gathered around the house screaming at someone inside the house at 220 Progress Avenue, across the street from the Wulzen home.
Francis Lloyd Russell had barracaded himself inside the house, apparently having shot his family, only a 10-year-old niece, Dorothy Russell, escaping.
No one yet dared to enter.
Russell was still shooting his pistols as Wulzen tried the doors and windows. The house was mostly dark, and he couldn’t see in, but Russell could apparently see out.
“I know you, Wulzen,” he said.
The deputy sheriff, still trying to gauge the situation, tried to humor him.
“Come on out,” Wulzen argued. “People will think you are crazy.”
“I am crazy,” Russell cried. “Look out! I’m going to shoot the clock.”
Several shots rang out. Hamilton Police Department officers Robert Leonard and Louis Keller arrived at the scene and knocked on the front door.
“Wait until I shoot the damn pictures off the wall,” Russell yelled and began firing again. Wulzen wasn’t counting, but later estimated hearing between 30 and 40 shots. Hamilton police detectives would say it was closer to 50, maybe more.
Leonard and Keller prepared tear gas bombs as Russell began to talk incoherently about the mortgage. Leonard, recognizing the possibility that Russell was not only distraught but out of his mind, pulled several small bills from his pocket saying, “It’s alright. We’re here to settle the mortgage for you.”
Then Russell said he was going to kill himself.
Then Wulzen and two patrolmen broke down the door as Russell fired his final shot.
The three men watched Russell sink to the floor. One of the revolvers, still smoking and containing four unfired cartridges, dropped from his grasp. A wet scarlet stain blossomed just below the pocket on his blue work shirt.
“I believe I missed my heart,” he gasped. “Kill me! Kill me!”
Wulzen noticed dozens of empty shell casings littering the house.
“I did a damn poor job on myself,” Russell said, as the patrolmen removed him from the scene and escorted him to the county jail.
Russell told the officers that Dorothy, one of the children, escaped.
“Wulzen,” he said, “take care of Dorothy. I loved her.”
Wulzen walked through the house, every room giving evidence of Russell’s “carnival of death,” as the paper called it.
Wulzen noted that there were no bullet holes in the clocks, pictures or walls. He presumed that Russell had continued pumping shots into the already lifeless bodies of the eight members of the household: his mother, his brother, his brother’s wife, and five of their six children.
On the davenport in the front room, John Lowell Russell, his wife Emma Russell and baby son Richard lay dead, all with bullets in their hearts, apparently shot in their sleep. Slumped off the side of the bed and partially in the floor, Julia Rose Russell, 13, also had bullets in her heart as well as other parts of her body. George Francis Russell, 6, had evidently attempted to crawl beneath the bed to escape the enraged uncle, but was stopped half way under.
“In all my experience in the trenches and battlefields of France I never saw a sight more ghastly than that at the Russell home this morning,” Wulzen later said.
In 1935, Wulzen retired from law enforcement and made a brief foray into politics when he ran for the Republican nomination for Butler County Treasurer. He was defeated soundly, and instead took up a second career in real estate until his death in 1957.
George Altman lived his entire life in Hamilton, except for the four years he spent in the U.S. Army, and for two and a half of those he lived in German prisoner of war camps.
Altman grew up in East Hamilton, near Schuler and Harmon avenues, working for Hamilton Metal Products on Belle Avenue making fishing tackle boxes and medicine cabinets when he was drafted in the U.S. Army in March, 1941.
"I hated every minute of the Army," he said. "I was 23 years old and already set in my ways. It's good for a younger fellow, who they can mold a little bit. I didn't care too much for that. There's a lot of wasted time in there. You'd spend a lot of days not doing anything, actually."
It was only supposed to be for a year, but when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor,
Altman found himself assigned to the First Infantry Division, known as "The Big Red One" after their insignia, pushing back the Germans from North Africa.
His company was in Tunisia on the evening of Jan. 27, 1943, four days after he'd been promoted to corporal, assigned to secure a mountain pass.
"The intelligence officer and his driver went up there and came back with the report that all was clear," he said, "That we could move up five or six miles.
"The next morning, three German companies hit that pass and there were only 200 of us. I was armed with an M1903 Springfield rifle, which was from World War I. We had no armor for the body, only a helmet.”
Dawn was just getting ready to break with company runner came up to Altman in his foxhole and said he was going to find another squad that was supposed to be in an outpost 200 yards ahead to get them to withdraw back to be with the rest of the company.
“He wanted to know what the password was so when he came back he wouldn't get fired on,” Altman said. “The password was, ‘Halt who goes there?’ you'd say, "Hi-ho, Silver," and they'd say "Away." which meant you could come in or move on.
“He wasn't gone five minutes before we heard the first shot of the mring from a German machine pistol, about three rounds, a burp. What happened, he must've stumbled on the fact that the squad had been captured by the Germans.
“I talked to a corporal who was in charge of them later on and he said he posted his men down there and he went to sleep because they got there about two in the morning and the Germans came up in the area.
The corporal heard someone moving around and said, “Halt, who goes there?”
He got a reply in English, "Where you at, Mac? I'm trying to find you."
So he said, come on in, I'll show you. And he took him up to where the outpost was so they captured 12 men without firing a shot.
So when the company runner stumbled on them, the Germans shot him.
"It was rough, hilly country," Altman said. "The Germans held the high ground and we were pinned down in the low ground and we were sitting there in our ditch around five or six in the morning, and the company runner, one of the captain's men who would send his messages because we had no radio, came by our foxhole."
He and his buddy Max reported to the captain, who first said that he wanted them to find a German machine gun nest and take it, but then inexplicably changed his mind and said, "Forget it. Go back to your foxhole."
Altman later found out that the captain had just learned of losing 12 men in an outpost and may have been reticent to lose any more.
So he and Max were going back to their foxholes when a sniper fired a bullet between them.
"We hit the ground," Altman said. "Max had moved up and got in my fox hole and I hollered at him, 'Move up again, I'm coming in. Go to yours."
On the count of three, they shifted their positions and another sniper bullet passed between them.
"There was a sergeant sitting next to me when the firing started," he said. "One of the men yelled at me and said, 'Altman I think Sarge has been hit.'
"He was just sitting on the edge of his foxhole with his rifle in his lap and I couldn't see his face.
"I hollered, "Are you alright?' and he never answered. So I picked up a stone and hit his helmet, but he didn't move. A sniper must've got him.
"You see in the movies how they fall over kicking, but he just sat there."
The shooting got pretty heavy after that and a platoon of German soldiers marched past and engaged them from about 200 yards away.
"Pretty soon the lieutenant cried out that he got hit in the ankle, then different guys started hollering 'I'm hit' or 'So-and-so's hit.'"
Altman read a report later that said his company lost 79 men that day. His company was down to five men, and they all surrendered when the German platoon finally over-ran their position.
Altman and some of the others who hadn’t been wounded helped carry two soldiers down the hill with them when they were marched to the back of the German line.
“One of them had his knee cap blowed off and another guy named Parks he tried to run up the hill and get away before we surrendered and one bullet entered his back. I asked the German, “Can we pick up our two men and take them down with us?’ and he said ‘Yeah, but hurry up.’
“So we picked up the kid had his knee cap blown off and we pick up Parks. They let us carry him down the hill to the aid station.
“The kid with his knee cap off he looked at the German doctor who spoke good English. He said, ‘I guess the leg’s got to come off.’
The doctor said, “Not necessarily. It might be stiff.”
Then he pointed to the kid who was hit in the back and said, “He ain’t going to make it.”
Two years later, however, he saw Parks in Miami, Fla., when Altman went there for rehabilitation.
“I walked in and I heard this voice and I knew right away it was Parks,” he said.
Parks was saying, “There’s that dirty so-and-so Altman who left me to die in North Africa.”
Altman went over to him and held out his hand, but Parks wouldn’t shake.
“Parks, how do you think you got here?” Altman asked him. “We carried you down that hill and saved your life.”
“Well, I didn’t know that,” Parks said. “I thought the whole time that we left him there and the Germans picked me up.” Then he held out his hand.
“No, you got it right,” Altman said. “Forget it,” and walked away.
The Germans marched Altman and other prisoners to the city of Tunis on the Mediterranean, to a fenced-in compound of ramshackle buildings they called the old schoolhouse,
“It was more or less a staging area for bringing in prisoners from the front,” he said. “We stayed there about a week. Then they took us to the Tunis airport where we boarded German transport planes, JU52s, they look like the Ford Tri-motor planes, and they put 15 prisoners on each plane and a couple of Germans going home on furlough.
“That was the first plane ride I ever had,” he said. “Our plane had engine trouble out over the Mediterranean and we landed in Sicily for a few hours and we continued on up to Naples to Camp 66 near Capua, Italy. We stay there in tents for about two weeks. That’s where we got our train ride.
In Naples, Italy, the prisoners were loaded 40 to in a boxcar to be transported to Musburg, near Munich and the infamous Dachau concentration camp.
"Four days and nights," Altman said. "One five-gallon lard can for your toilet facilities for 40 men. That was a stinking mess. It was a strictly bread and water routine. No food. Five men on a loaf of bread every day. Once a day they would let you outside for toilet. Most of the time you spent in the box car."
After two weeks in Musburg, it was another four day trip to Stalag 3B in Furstenberg near the Polish border, where he would spend the next 23 months.
Because he had just made corporal, he didn't have to do work detail.
"If you were a private in a war camp, you worked 12 hours a day, six days a week, cleaning up after bombings, working on railroads, like slave labor," he said, "and they did that on the same ration of everyone who was sleeping all day long. They had it pretty rough. All we did was play ball."
The German rations of food were pretty bad most of the time. His barracks got a big tub of what they called coffee every morning, but it wasn't real coffee and it was so weak that some of the men used it to shave once they started getting Red Cross rations, but a lot of those were taken by Germans.
“Then at noon they’d bring a big tub of dehydrated rutabaga, a turnip, all cooked up and it stunk to high heaven,” Altman said. “But it was edible, I guess and helped us.
“In the evening they’d bring a loaf of bread in for five men and five men would take turns cutting that loaf of bread up in five pieces. Each man got a fifth of it. Each time a different man in your group would cut that and he got last choice, so you can bet he’d measure that real careful. And every piece was equal because he wasn’t going to give anyone a better piece. And sometimes a little piece of sausage or cheese.”
After a while, the Red Cross boxes started coming in. each with 11 pounds of food: Spam, corned beef, cheese, raisins, sardines.
The prisoners would use the food as currency for their poker games, which would sometimes go on for two or three days.
“They’d put the food up to the guy who was the banker and you got so many chips for the food,” he said, “like a can of Spam might be worth 50 chips and a can of sardines might only be two or three.
“The man who got most of the money in the poker game, he got first choice, so naturally he’d take the coffee and the Spam and what was left like sardines and cheese they were left over for the guys who had less money,” he said.
And one day, a guy cashed in his cips for a jar of Nescafe instant coffee which was pretty valuable stuff.
“A couple hours later he was running around mad as hell trying to figure out who’d been in that game, trying to figure out who put in the coffee,” Altman said, because when he opened the jar he discovered that it was filled with sand with only a small amount of Nescafe on top.
On another occasion, a pair of guys who had been in college together and served together in the Iowa National Guard division got into an argument over a game of bridge.
“One of them must have made a cardinal sin in the game and the other one just blew up at him,” Altman said. “You could hear him cussing all over the barracks.
“We’re done,” one of them said. “Let’s split up everything,” referring to a Red Cross box they were sharing.
“They cut the everything in half, everything 50/50,” Altman recalled. “They got down to the box of raisins and of course it was a square box and they’re loose in there.”
One of them got the knife and started to cut it and the other one looked at him and said, “What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to cut it in half,” he said. “You take which half you want and I’ll take what’s left.”
“Oh, no,” he said. “That ain’t fair.”
“What do you want to do, Count them?”
“Yeah, that’s what I want,” the other replied. “Empty them and count it out. One for me, one for you. We got nothing else to do.”
Altman, who took German in high school and whose parents were from Hungary and spoke German at home, kept up war news surprisingly well inside Stalag 3B, as long as they could read around the propaganda.
“You could get a German newspaper from one of the guards for two cigarettes every day,” he said. “They kept pretty accurate news articles in the paper. But instead of admitting a loss, they'd call it a strategic retreat."
There were secret radios in the camps, crystal sets, where he could listen to German news, which he would translate for his fellow prisoners, or to the Berlin Philharmonic, at least until there would be an air raid, then the programs would go off the air.
One day, a prisoner from another barracks found out he knew German and told him he would come and get him in Barracks 19B around supper time.
"He took me to 14B and back in the corner they had a crystal set, good powerful set, and every 15 minutes a different fellow would sit down and listen to a different broadcast from London," Altman said. "They would broadcast every 15 minutes in different languages."
So he put on the big headphones and wrote down the broadcast of news from London. It was during the summer, and hot, so he wasn't wearing a shirt. Unbeknownst to him at the time, a German guard came in the barracks with his dog.
"Right away the Americans gave him a cup of coffee and something to eat, a cigarette, whatever they could to keep his attention away from the corner," he said. "I often thought if that dog had come in a touched me with his cold nose on my bare back, I'd have jumped out of the window."
Also unbeknownst to him, he was sitting on top of a trap door that led to an underground room that the prisoners in 14B had dug under the floorboards, where a bigger radio receiver had been assembled, cobbled together a piece at a time from material purchased from the guards.
"Three or four months later they raided that barracks," he said. "The barracks leader didn't even know it was in there, but they gave him 15 days solitary for it.
"On the wall (in the underground room) they had three pictures: Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill," he said. "The commandant of the camp, his name was Blau, he went down in that room and looked and said, 'Tear it out. It looks like Allied Headquarters in London.'"
Although Altman was only called to translate broadcasts the one time, he realized that those broadcasts were likely the source of the little newspaper that some prisoners would put together.
“A guy would come in, read it, and then they'd tear it up,” he said.
As the war began to wind down, in February, 1945, the prisoners at Furstenburg were marched east to Luckenwalde, about 35 miles south of Berlin, as the Russian army advanced from the west.
"They didn't want us to get liberated," Altman said. "Later on we heard that wanted to send all of the prisoners to Berlin where they would be bombed by the Americans and British in retaliation for the bombings that were going on.
"We walked the first 24 hours without stopping," he said, in blizzard conditions, temperature about 20 below zero, one of the worst European winters in many years.
"At the end of the 24 hours, we were pretty miserable," he said. "They put us up in villages in big barns. It felt like heaven getting into the big pile of hay, getting warm. Then the next morning they started marching us again, but they'd only march us from eight to 10 hours for the next six days.
While others reported that the road was lined with American dead from the march, Altman said he knew of only one, a fellow by the name of Don Johnson.
“He got off the road to urinate and was slow getting back in line and this old German just shot him for the hell of it,” he said.
There were corpses lining the road, he said, but they were German civilians.
“Trainload of civilians were going to Berlin on open flat cars and they were throwing the dead bodies off,” he said, “new born kids, women and children. They froze to death.”
As they approached Luckenwalde, Altman saw a collection of big circus tents, their new home.
"I asked a guard what kind of beds do they have in those tents, and he laughed, and said 'Beds? You'll see.'
"There weren't any beds, just piles of straw."
The conditions at Luckenwalde, the last three months, were the worst of the entire ordeal, Altman said.
There were 1,500 men, four or five hundred to a tent without heat except for body heat.
"But you had to lay there for three months without a bath and very little food," he said
"You had one faucet out in the middle of a field for all 1,500 men to wash and bathe," he said. "They dug slit trenches for defecating. German people would walk right by the fence and they could watch you.
"Red Cross boxes came in slowly at that time, the war drawing to a close. The Germans were taking some of the food and keeping it for themselves," he said.
The Luckenwalde camp -- Stalag 3A -- already had a prisoner of war population for much of the war, and the tents has apparently been erected for those being marched in from other camps.
“In the brick buildings they were even more crowded,” Altman said.
After about three months, they could hear the Russians coming, the thunder of the guns in the distance. On April 22, 1945, they finally arrived.
“It was on a Sunday morning we woke up and all the guards were gone,” Altman said. “The guard towers were empty, no guards walking around. Word got out real quick that they were gone.
“We were told by our leaders that they evacuated the camp and to let the Russians take over, otherwise we’d get caught in the crossfire.
“About two hours later, here come the Russian tanks tearing the fences down,” he said. “They were a motley looking crew. Mongolian types, no IQ at all. And women truck drivers. They were rough.
“We were liberated and that was it. They told us to stay put, they were going up to Berlin to fight.
After a few hours, one of Altman’s buddies, a policeman named Phil, said, “Let’s go up to the front and see what it’s like to be free.”
“So we went up, walked through the gate and on up the road, but we didn’t know what to do, so we just went back to the tents and laid down.”
Eventually, however, they started to figure things out and would leave camp during the day to go into Luckenwalde.
“We’d watch the circus going on there because these troops were a riot,” he said. “We’d go into the hotels and there’d be a bar and they were drunk and shooting their tommy guns.
It was rough enough in the daytime, but too risky to be in town or out on the roads at night, so they’d always get back to camp before dark.
On one occasion, they saw five Russians pick up a piano and throw it out an upstairs window.
“The keys just flew all over the street and they hung out the window laughing,” he said. “Or they would shoot the windows out of the furniture stores and sit there and eat their lunch there on the tables and chairs.”
Shooting out windows seemed to be a favorite pastime for the Russians until their command told them not to do that anymore.
“Then they started taking the windows out of all of the houses and shipping them back to Russia because everything was lost there,” he said.
“One day, Phil and I went down the back way to Luckenwalde and met a Norwegian naval officer,” he said. “They were real nice people, the Norwegians, but he was mad.”
“Don’t go up that way,” he told them. “There’s two Russians up there. They got this woman and one of them is raping her and a little girl about two years old and the other Russian is raping her.
“If I had a gun, I’d kill both of them,” the Norwegian said.
Phil said, “That’s no place for us, so we just by-passed them. It was probably true, because that was going on all around us.”
Even though they were still living in big tents and sleeping in beds of straw on the ground, they ate better under the Russians.
‘They brought in cows and told us to go ahead and butcher them,” he said. “They brought us potatoes. Anything they got from the Germans, they’d bring it to camp and dump it out. It was an orgy then. Everybody was eating something.”
After a couple of weeks, they started getting anxious to move one, and one Sunday Phil and Altman met two American lieutenants on the road to one of the neighboring villages. They were carrying home made billy clubs.
“We’re going to have a problem here,” said Phil, a big rough fellow about six-foot-five who hated the Army even more than Altman. “When they jump me, you keep one off my back and I’ll take care of the other one.”
“What the hell,” Altman thought to himself. “I guess that’s something we’ve got to do.”
The lieutenants held their batons up and said, “Hold it soldiers.”
“What do you want?” Phil asked them.
“Back to camp,” they said. “You’re off-limits.”
“Who says so?” Phil challenged them.
“I said so,” one of the officers said.
“We didn’t see you guys for two years, now all of a sudden you’re going to take over?” Phil challenged them. “You must be nuts.”
The lieutenants just looked at each other.
“Don’t have any idea of using those clubs,” Phils said, “or you’ll be eating them.”
“The colonel who was in charge of the camp says you got to stay in the camp,” one of them said.
“We’ll go anyplace we want to,” Phil said, not backing down. “The Russians liberated us and they’re not complaining.”
“So we went our way and they went their way,” Altman recalled.
That’s when Phil said, “George, it’s time to leave. I’m not going to stay here and be bounced around like that.”
So they went back to camp to gather up some supplies and ran into a young kids about 18 years old from Kentucky they called Junior, who wanted to go with them.
“We had maps of the area and this boy from Kentucky had two or three guns already,” Altman said. “You could get any gun you wanted. They were all over.
Phil told him, “Junior, throw the guns away.”
“No, I’m taking them with me,” Junior said.
“You ain’t going with us then,” Phil said. “Carrying them guns is just going to get us in trouble, we’re open game for everybody. We’re going unarmed. You can go with us or stay behind.”
So Junior threw his guns away and the three of them took off.
“We weren’t out of the camp two hours and we heard something coming down the railroad tracks so we jumped in the bushes,” Altman said. “Here comes four or five drunken Russians on one of those hand carts, two of them pumping and the other three shooting their rifles up in the air and at the cows in the field, so it was a good thing we didn’t have any guns.
After they passed, the three of them cut across a big wide open field trying to get around a Russian road block.
“They hollered at us to come on up but we kept going like we didn’t hear them,” Altman said.”I don’t think they were trying to hit us, but they starting shooting over our heads.
“Then right in front of us four other Russians came out of the weeds in camouflage,” he said, “so there we were captured again.
“We hollered ‘We’re Americans,’ and they understood we were prisoners of war, so they marched us down to the administration building to a Lieutenant colonel or something like that in charge of the air base.
“He explained we were being held by the Russians now and we had violated coming across their tarmac, but he was glad to see us.
“He gave us some food and we stayed with him and his men about two hours. They drew us another map and told us how to get to the Elbe River and wished us good luck. So we take off down the road.”
They didn’t get far, however, before they went around around a bend in the road and saw three three German soldiers and three German women hiding out in a hollow.
The women looked all hard-edged and military, wearing combat boots and military slacks, but Altman didn’t see any weapons.
“Should I give them some cigarettes?” Phil asked.
“Yeah,” Altman said, “a peace offering.”
So in his broken German, Altman started talking to one of the men, telling him that they were POWs and looking to get to the Elbe while Phil passed around cigarettes.
“Be careful, Moose,” Altman said. “One of these guys has a machine pistol pointed at you under the blanket.
“I just kept talking to the one guy,” Altman said, “asking which was the best way to the Elbe. He wanted to know if there were any Russians in the area. I said, ‘There are a lot of Russians in the area. I don’t think you’ve got much of a chance.’”
“We’ve got to get to our lines,” the German said, apparently unaware that their lines were gone.
“So we shook hands and told them good-bye,” Altman recalled. “We went down the road a little bit and the fellow I had been talking to started to holler. We’d left a canteen behind or something.
“You don’t trust us, do you?” Altman asked him.
“What do you mean?” the German replied.
“Your friend had the machine pistol pointed at me,” Altman said.
The German laughed and said, “You saw it?”
“No,” Altman replied. “My friend saw it.”
“Well, we were going to shoot you if we had to,” the German said. “But you weren’t causing us any problem. You’re free to go.”
“I suspect they didn’t last two or three hours after we left them,” Altman recalled, “because they were going to make a fight for it, but they didn’t have a chance at all, and the Russians were after all the women they could get.”
The three men spent the night in an abandoned school house in a small village, and the next morning got a ride with some Russian troops who were going to Wittenberg on the Elbe River.
“We stayed there two or three days, then the Russians told us they were going to march us back to prison camp so we go away from them again,” Altman said. “We walked up the Elbe River hoping we’d find one bridge that wasn’t secured. That’s when we ran into an American patrol picking up stragglers. We got on the truck and went 40 miles up the Elbe River until we came to a check point where they had Americans and Russians, so they let us go across.”
While they were on the truck, Phil poked Altman and said, “That fellow next to you ain’t American.”
Altman checked the guy out, saw that he had American clothes on but “was strictly Polish looking.”
“Looks like he’s trying to get away,” he said to Phil.
“It looks like it it,” Phil said. “Ask him who he is.”
“I can’t do that,” Altman said. “I don’t speak Polish, but I’ll check him out.”
“Do you have a light, Mac?” he asked, but the man didn’t answer, apparently didn’t know that Altman was talking to him.
So Altman switched to German and asked: “Are you Polish?”
“He got a real frightened look on his face,” Altman recalled. “He asked if I was going to turn him in.”
“No I don’t care who you are,” Altman told him.
“I want to go with you and get away from the Russians,” the Pole said.
But after they crossed the Elbe, Altman never saw him again.
“The Americans at the time were giving them back to the Russians,” he said. “They either killed him or put him back in the army.”
They took Junior, Phil and Altman to Hildesheim, a big German air base that had Americans had taken over, where they stayed for about two weeks until they could get a plane ride to France.
“You weren’t allowed to talk to the Germans at Hildesheim,” Altman said. “We didn’t know it at the time but the American Army had put out an order that there was to be no fraternization with the enemy.
“If you got caught even talking to German kids or offer them candy, they’d fine you $75 and take your rank away from you. They were sticking to that rule because we were talking to some kids outside the gate and this guard came over and said, ‘If you guys want to pay 75 bucks, keep it up,’ and he explained the rule to us.
Phil said, “Hell, we’ve been with these people longer than we’d been with the American Army.”
“I don’t care, Mac,” the guard said. “No fraternization. That’s the rule”
“We would get up every day and go to the mess hall, get anything we wanted to eat,” he said.”Then the Red Cross group came in so we laid around for two weeks eating doughnuts waiting for the plane to go to France.”
When he finally got back stateside, he received a 60-day furlough and came back to Hamilton for a while, and was in Miami for rehabilitation when the war in the Pacific Theater ended and he got his discharge.
“I was in Indianapolis to catch a bus or a train to get home,” he said, “when I ran into a guy from the First Division with all kinds of medals and everything, the patch on his arm, the big red one.”
It was a guy named Red Johnson, who had managed to get away on the day Altman and the others were captured in Tunisia.
“I wish to Christ I’d got captured when you did,” he told Altman.
He said, “We got sent over to Sicily to fight, then went back to England, where the First Division Operated. Didn’t send any body home, sent the whole division to England, retrained there the rest of ‘43 and into ‘44, then took part on the D-Day landing, fought all the way across Europe and got captured six days before the war ended in Czechoslovakia.
“I marched all that way and ended up in a prison camp the same as you did,” Johnson said.
“There’s only one fellow out of our company, a Mexican boy from Victoria, Texas, who was the only one of the 200 original men who wasn’t wounded, killed or captured,” Altman said. “He took part in all of the campaigns and came home safe and sound.”
When Altman got back to Hamilton, married Dorothy, his high school sweetheart, and joined the Hamilton Fire Department, advancing to the rank of Captain.
But before he moved to the offices in City Hall, Altman spent 13 years as a firefighter in the East Avenue station.
He wrote to one of his Army buddies that it was worse there than any barracks he’d slept in while he was in Germany.
“This place is a barn with no central heat, just a potbellied stove heating the upstairs. It’s crumblier and dirtier than any barracks I was in,” he said.
“I’m in another Stalag.”
Carl E. Kimmons
Sailor, Educator, Mayor
Sailor, Educator, Mayor
How does a boy who grew up on Pershing Avenue end up the mayor of a town in Puerto Rico?
A good question, but only one trivial fact from the career of a remarkable Hamilton native.
When Carl Eugene Kimmons, born April 10, 1920, was 17 years old, he was enchanted by the movie “Submarine D-1.” After he graduated from Hamilton High School in 1939, he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, but his dream of joining the U.S. Navy was further piqued when George Morris, a man from his neighborhood, came home from a tour of duty on a submarine. Later on, Kimmons would recall how he was impressed by the tall man in his Navy blues standing over six feet tall and jangling with medals. He would also joke that Morris never let on how hard the naval training was, according to his listing in The African American National Biography.
Segregation and discrimination were the norm, and the only option for a black seaman was in the Steward’s Branch in service of the officer’s corps, preparing their meals and cleaning their quarters no matter what his aptitude, experience, or education may have been. After his training, Kimmons was assigned to the destroyer USS McFarland as a mess attendant third class. In his off-hours, he did unofficial duty as a yeoman, typing reports and handling the ship’s log. On December 7, 1941, the USS McFarland was docked at Pearl Harbor.
Due to his access to the ship’s paperwork, in early 1942 he came across an unposted memorandum that the Submarine Force would begin accepting more black sailors. He requested submarine duty and made four patrols in the USS Plunger and three more on another tub.
In 1943, he was given a stateside assignment in Philadelphia. He was disappointed in the transfer, but was able to come home for leave and married his childhood sweetheart, the former Thelma Jean Lewis. Together, they would raise two daughters and a son.
In November that year, he went back to submarine duty aboard the USS Parche and served in battles fierce enough to earn the Navy Unit Commendation Award.
He is credited as the first man to enter the Navy as a mess attendant to serve in every enlisted pay grade from E1 to E9 to receive a commission. As an officer, he was assigned to the U.S. Navy Hydrographic Office in Washington, D.C., the Naval Submarine School and the Naval Underwater Sound Laboratory.
When he retired from the Navy nearly 30 years later in 1970, he had served in three wars and was the only World War II mess attendant to advance to the rank of Lieutenant.
At his retirement, his commanding officer said, “Lt. Kimmons earned the respect of his juniors and seniors, and the loyalty of the civilian population for his reflection of the highest sense of honor, justice, compassion, understanding, and tolerance which he consistently displayed... His devotion to duty, spirit of sacrifice, and deep sense of pride and loyalty have been in keeping with the proud traditions of military service.”
His medals and accommodations are too numerous to list, but included two silver and ten bronze stars.
After his retirement, he went to Connecticut College for a bachelor of science degree and to the University of Connecticut for his master of arts, and embarked on a second career of 22 years as a social studies teacher in the Waterford, Connecticut, school system.
In November 1954, while still serving as a 34-year-old chief petty officer in the Navy, he beat out three other candidates in a “chest-thumping, speech-making” campaign to become the first mayor of San Patricio, Puerto Rico.
During his term, he worked 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday as chief yeoman of the San Juan Naval Station, and in the evenings drive six miles north to his non-paying mayoral side gig. San Patricio was built for the Navy during World War II to house servicemen stationed in the area and their dependents, at the time about 1,300 residents, both military and civilian. He described the job as a combination of trouble-shooter and liaison between the residents and their landlord, the United States government. He presided over ten council members and a vice mayor until his term ended two years later with his transfer
When he died in 2016 at the age of 96, he was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery.