This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, December 25, 1927
Christmas in “Those Good Old Days”
By Howard Burba
The longer you have lived in Dayton the harder it is going to be for you to visualize the little mind picture I want to offer you this Christmas morning.
In fact, it is bordering on the impossible for you to picture your home city in a day when a deep, unbroken forest extended all the way, on both sides of the road, from the canal at Third St. to the little village of Harshmanville. It is going to be still more difficult to picture a settlement of friendly Indians on the brow of Huffman Hill, a site now within the boundaries of the new government airfield, and a site soon to be marked by a towering shaft of granite in tribute to the Wright brothers.
There were no houses to speak of, at the time of which I write, between Harshmanville, then called “Snaptown,” and Dayton. Neither was there a railroad touching either settlement. It was a forest primeval, its peacefulness unbroken save for the echo of woodsman’s axe or the call of the wild to its mate.
Into this wilderness, possessed of little save a knowledge of brickmaking and a strong physical constitution, came in the year 1835 one Jonathan Finfrock, emigrating by way of the Ohio river and a stage line from Cincinnati from his home in Lancaster Co., Pennsylvania. With him came his wife, and in her arms a 10-month-old baby. And it is of that baby, carried into the wilderness more than 92 years ago, of which I would have you know. For even now, at the age of more than 93 years, that child of pioneer days lives to tell you of Christmas in Dayton almost 100 years ago.
But 10 months of age when his parents settled near what is now the village of Harshmanville, it naturally follows that John W. Finfrock cannot recall his first Christmas spent in his new home. But memory carries him back as clearly and precisely as though it were yesterday to the occasion of his first visit to Dayton, and that on Christmas.
He was then 7 years old, so that the year must have been 1841. All through the fall he had been ailing, so at the suggestion of his mother the elder Finfrock brought him to Dayton for medical attention.
“I recall that trip as distinctly as though it were only last week," he told the writer a few days ago. “Solid woods on both sides of the road all the way from the mill at Harshman’s, and past the old Harries & Smith distillery at the edge of the settlement to the very eastern edge of the canal. Mad river at that time crossed what is now Third St. at the present site of the Callahan foundries, wound its way on down through what is now Haymarket and Burns Aves. and the fairgrounds, emptying into the Miami near the latter point, instead of the Webster St. bridge, as it does today.
“We crossed over the canal bridge at Third St. and went on west. There was not a two-story house on either side of Third St. until we got almost to the intersection of Main. We crossed an old one-span, covered bridge at Third and the river, driving up a steep embankment to reach it, and down another on the opposite side. There were about six houses west of the river, and in one of them lived old Dr. Ritty, inventor of the cash register. He fixed me up with pills and prescription and we went on back home.
“I won’t say that the winters were any more severe then than they are today, but they seemed to last longer. The snow came along around Thanksgiving time, and always laid on the ground for five and six weeks at a time. I suppose that was due to the protection it received from the forests, now long since cleared away.
“We didn’t have any hogs or cattle, very few people did in those days because they were scarce, very high in price, and could only be brought in by the overland trails with difficulty. But wild turkeys were as plentiful as quail today, and of wild pigeons there were millions. Even at the age of seven I was able to slay them with sticks as they fought among themselves for the fruit of the redberry bush. I have seen pigeons alight on small bushes in such large numbers as to completely demolish it, their weight breaking down the branches.
“Deer were plentiful, and the sight of a bear was not uncommon. So when Christmas rolled around we were well provided for in the way of meat. There wasn’t any candy to be had, but mother would take the thick brown sugar from the store at Harshman, and make taffy for us. Then we would pop corn and string it on thread and hang it on the Christmas tree we had cut, sometimes in a few yards of the house. Mother could make ginger cakes, and these were a Christmas treat to us. Outside of canned berries which grew plentifully in the neighborhood, we had no fruit. In fact, I was a pretty good sized boy before I ever saw an orange.
Everybody had bob-sleds, so we had sleighing parties. There wasn’t anything in the way of entertainment outside of sleighing parties and an occasional social gathering, because there was no place to hold them. There was a little Methodist church at Harshman, but it didn’t serve as much of a community center, because there wasn’t much of a community. The distillery, Harries ale brewery and the Pierce grocery were the centers of neighborhood communion in those days. Occasionally some pioneer would come in from the outside, elect to locate in the community, and then there would be a log-rolling, citizens gathering on a Saturday to cut and roll and set in place the logs which formed his cabin. Of course the women folks came along, too, and they’d cook up a big dinner of wild turkey, wild pigeon potpie and the like.
“We didn’t grow any wheat. Cleared ground was at a premium, and what few acres were cleared and cultivated were put into corn and potatoes. The few remaining Indians, civilized then and representing the back-lash of a tribe that had pushed on into the west, used to come into the settlement to trade furs for meal. Every boy did more or less trapping in those days; it was about the only way we had to get money. I was pretty successful, and made quite a few dollars selling coon hides at 10 cents each and rabbits, hide and all, at 2 cents apiece.
“I never went in for the bigger game, though I remember very distinctly when I came pretty close to landing one animal that I didn’t want. Mother had sent me over to an uncle’s on an errand, and the trip took me along a path through the brushes and woods. I wasn’t far from the house, in the woods, when I heard the most hideous scream I ever heard in my life. I never lost a minute in turning on my heel and running back in the direction from whence I had come. Henry Eckman, a neighbor, was cutting trees nearby, and he hailed me. I was too scared to talk, but he asked me what that noise was. I finally described the scream, and he took me on home then, went to his house and got his flint-lock rifle.
“It wasn’t long until I heard a shot, and in a short time he came to our house. From across one shoulder there dangled a dead panther. He skinned it, took the skin to Xenia, and got a bounty of $50 the state was offering. I never heard of but two other animals of this kind being killed around here after that one.
“When I had secured a little schooling father put me in the Pierce grocery store. Then when Mr. Peirce sold out to a Mr. Barr, I stayed on with him. You see it was a stage stop, being on the road between Springfield and Dayton, and it was a good business location. We sold about everything there was to be had in stores of that day including whiskey and ale made at the Harries distillery. Twenty-five cents a gallon was the regular price of whisky, and it never varied.
“I can’t say that people drank any more, nor any less, then than they do now. But somehow they didn’t seem to make so much fuss over it. Everybody had it that wanted it, and it was a fixture on almost every center table in pioneer homes. It was a part of Christmas celebrations, of course. Any yet everybody seemed to know how to handle it.
“I sold it all the time I was clerking in the grocery, but that is as far as it went with me. However, I recall my first introduction to what we call ‘the cup that cheers.’
“Shows were few and far between in those days, because there were no theatres. One time, while I was still a strip of a boy a show came to Dayton. It was called ‘Tom Thumb’s Show,’ and Tom Thumb the midget, was about the whole show. Three other boys came with me to Dayton to see it, and we walked all the way. The tent was pitched alongside the canal, about where the Interurban station stands. Before the show started we ventured into a saloon on Jefferson St., near the present site of the Western Union office. One boy bought a bottle of catawba wine, since none of us had ever seen or tasted any. It tasted good, so each one bought a bottle.
“I remember getting out of the show ground, two squares away, and I still remember Tom Thumb coming in and starting the show. The next I could remember a man had me thrown across his shoulder and he was saying to somebody: ‘I know his people; live neighbors to me; I’ll take him home.’ And he did. I was two weeks getting over that, and while I’ve seen and sold a lot of liquor since, I’ve let the other fellows do the drinking.
“Boys have a better time now than they did in those days. That’s because they have more in the way of entertainment, and more sports. Christmas sports in and around Dayton 75 years ago consisted largely of racing on the snow. Sometimes the races would be held along the pike, but in town they raced on First St., and continued to do so up to as late as 15 or 20 years ago. In the early days Bryce Dailey and George Hoaglan owned the fastest horses hereabouts, and there was a good deal of rivalry between them. When they raced on the snow it always attracted large numbers.
“While I was quite a boy when I went into business myself, starting a little grocery at the wharf in Piqua, I wasn’t much for age when the first railroad train came through and served as a new vehicle for transporting our goods. I was probably 8 or 10 years old when I was playing around in the village one day and looking down the track, which was still pretty much of a mystery to me I beheld my first train. I waited until it got up in a hundred yards of me, and I made a wild dash for home. It was the first train over the old Sandusky and Cincinnati, now the New York Central Lines.
“McKee, Woodard & Weakley and J. O. Bryan had wholesale groceries in Dayton then, and Mr. Bryan persuaded me to go to Piqua. He supplied my stock, about $700 worth of groceries. But $700 bought a lot of goods in those days, when sugar was selling at 2-1/2 cents a pound and coffee – everybody roasted their own in those days – at 5 cents and 6 cents a pound. I had a chance to sell in Piqua, took it, and coming to Dayton, started four grocery stores, one right after the other.
“I bought a grocery on Fifth St., in pretty close to where May & Co. are now, paying $300 for the stock and fixtures. Next door a lady ran a millinery store, and she had a pretty daughter, who loafed in my grocery a lot. One day her fellow, from Arcanum, came in the store, and she was leaning across with her elbows on the counter, talking sort of confidential-like. I didn’t know the stranger was her sweetheart, but it wouldn’t have made any difference because I was too busy in those days to go in for courtship. But she went out with him.
“That was on a Saturday. On the next Tuesday that same fellow came in. ‘How much’ll you take for this grocery as it stands and get out right now?’ he asked.
“Seven hundred dollars buys it, if it’s a cash deal, I answered. And before I could bat an eye he had out a big pocketbook, and handed me $700. I guess he thought that was the safest way to keep his girl. So I took my $400 profit, and went down on Wayne Ave. and started another grocery.
“When the war broke out in ’61 I was 27 years old, and pretty well along as a business man. The draft that was to include me came along, and I was all ready to put my business in other hands and go, but the war ended before my contingent was needed. Dayton was getting to be quite a town then, with canal and rail and stage service, and there was a lot of activity around the old wharf. It stood right along the east bank of the canal, where the Delco buildings now stand. Old man Adam Chamberlain was the wharfmaster. Where the Huffman block now stands, in that part of Third St. burned during the 1913 flood, was the old Lafayette house, a frame structure with long steps running the entire width of its frontage.
The old Montgomery House stood at Third and the canal, opposite that has for years been the Hoban Brass Foundry. Then, I think, the next hotel was the old Phillips House. I was at the latter hotel when Lincoln came through making speeches, annd heard him speak both at the hotel and across on the old courthouse corner. And I voted for him, too. Right after I had helped to elect him I married a Clark Co. girl, Catherine Roll. She died a good many years ago.”
Surrounded by relatives and loving friends, John W. Finfrock is spending his 93rd Christmas happily, contentedly, cheerfully. Times has been kind to him. Today there is not living in the entire city of Dayton one man or woman who resided here when Mr. Finfrock came, as a 10-month-old child, from his birthplace in Pennsylvania.
For years he has been engaged in the real estate business. And even now, at the age of 93, he is as regular in his office hours as men 50, or even 75 years younger. He seldom misses a day at his office in the Canby building, and to show that his business skill has never deserted him he has turned some unusual realty deals within the year just coming to a close.
“I enjoyed being here back in those good old days,” he said to me as were walked along the streets of Dayton a few days ago. “I’m glad to be here this Christmas. I hope everybody is as happy as I am, too. And they would be if they only knew how much more they have to make them happy than we had in the years gone by.”