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The First Hundred Years of Dayton

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, September 28, 1933


By Howard Burba


     “Ladies and Gentlemen:--

           “One hundred years ago tonight the light of the setting sun, piercing the dense forest that reached from the surrounding hills, fell upon a little band of men and women—aye, and children, too—who rested upon the shore of the great Miami after a weary journey of 10 days on its unknown waters.  These were the founders of Dayton.

     “Nation, continent, world, each has its anniversary fraught with grave lessons and pointing to grand possibilities, and each of theses great anniversaries belongs in part to us who are here, because we are of that nation, that continent, that Christian world.  But we come together this evening as citizens of Dayton to observe an anniversary that is all our own.  We come to celebrate with word and song the one hundredth birthday anniversary of our city, to exult in its lusty youth, to strengthen our faith in its promise of the coming years.”


     The place was the old Grand Opera House (now the Victory), the time April 1, 1896, the speaker Frank Conover, veteran journalist, and the occasion the one hundredth anniversary of the settlement of Dayton.

     Out on the streets an augmented army of street sweepers had spent a busy day cleaning away the remaining evidence of one of Dayton’s wildest nights, a gigantic carnival such as no city in all this territory had ever staged up to that time; a carnival made historic by the unleashing of 100 years of pent-up civic enthusiasm.

     And it all came about through one little suggestion made almost a year before by a patient invalid as she lay on her sick bed, body wracked with pain but heart and mind happily dedicated to her native town.  That woman was Mary Davies Steele, daughter of  Robert W. Steele, for whom the city’s parent high school was christened.  She had spent her entire life in Dayton; to her each year in its history was as an interesting chapter in her own life.  Now that it was nearing its one hundredth anniversary, and since at that time few cities in the middle west had attained that important milestone, her suggestion that the entire community join in an imposing celebration of the event fell upon interested ears.  Visitors to her bedside heard that suggestion, applauded it, approved it and passed it on.  And there on her sick bed Mary Davies Steele sowed a tiny seed of civic enthusiasm that blossomed into the most brilliant municipal event in the first 100 years of Dayton.

     Throughout the year plans for the big celebration went on uninterruptedly.  Committees were appointed, and their members entered heartily into the tasks assigned them.  But one cloud obscured the sky.  Old Newcom Tavern, today the city’s foremost landmark and familiarly termed “the old log cabin,” had become a serious obstacle in the path of progress.  Its destruction was threatened.  Though an attempt had long before been made to give it a new lease on life through the application of a veneer of clapboards, it again had reached a stage where commercially-inclined citizens vehemently chose to classify it as an eye-sore.

     Once again a happy suggestion fell from the lips of the beloved invalid, Mary Steele.  She insisted that this, the first house erected on the site of a town that was even then on the eve of celebrating its centennial anniversary, certainly was too valuable from a sentimental and historic standpoint to pass “unwept, unhonored and unsung.”  Again her loyal friends rallied to the banner of civic pride which she constantly held aloft.  The plea for the preservation of Newcom Tavern became city-wide.  A public donation was gathered.  The cabin was purchased, and with its masque of clapboards removed, it was restored to its original state on the site which it now occupies and on which it doubtless will be standing when Dayton observes the closing of another 100 years.

     Early on the morning of April 1, 1896, the Dayton Centennial Celebration was officially opened with special programs in every public and parochial school.  Every public building was decorated especially for the occasion.  At Steele High, then the outstanding educational institution of the city, the old bell from Newcom Tavern was kept ringing at intervals throughout the entire day.  On down-town streets decorators draped thousands of yards of bunting, while private homes were festooned with the national colors. On a stand in front of the high school prominent local citizens reviewed the municipal history of Dayton.  If ever there was a “feast of reason and a flow of soul” it was this demonstration.

     Today, 34 years later, we find a touch of pathos in some of those talks.  For instance, Miss Susie E. Gaines, then prominent in the city’s civic life, portrayed in a manner remarkably complete at that time yet words that must now be viewed as far from prophetic, the progress of transportation.  She lamented the threatened passing of the horse, since, the arrival of the steam locomotive and the street car.  She expressed the belief that the ultimate in locomotion had been reached.  Within ten years following that address gas-propelled vehicles were dashing past the site on which she stood when she delivered her address, and the Wright brothers were actually soaring in the air a half-dozen miles to the east.

     Nightfall found thousands of visitors streaming into the city.  It was at a time when the now almost extinct “dollar excursion” was in its glory.  Railroads entering the city offered special low fares for the occasion, and toward late afternoon it began to appear as though the biggest part of the Miami Valley was going to take advantage of it.

     Shortly after dusk there began the wildest jubilee ever staged locally up to that time.  Every form of noisemaker known to that day was bought into play.  Musty files of local papers gave signal credit for success along this line to a small contingent of workers from the Brownell Boiler Co., who had mounted one of their largest products on the frame of a farm wagon, and who vigorously applied sledge-hammers to it as it was drawn through the streets in a mile-long parade.  At the head of this pageant, and offering a distinct novelty, was a float bearing a mammoth star, “actually lighted with 75 brilliant incandescent bulbs,” as our pioneer newshound declared.

     But let this same writer, in his own words, describe the peak of that gorgeous celebration to you:

     “The pageant, made up of four divisions and each division headed by its own band, was so well timed that all divisions reached third and Main sts. at midnight,” he relates.  “As the four columns approached the center of the two streets thousands and thousands of rockets were discharged from every direction.  This continued for half an hour and proved one of the grandest sights ever witnessed in Dayton.  From each of the columns came the rockets and Roman candles, while upon the streets and housetops colored lights were burned.  Flags were waved from every window, while in many places rocket after rocket was discharged from windows and roofs.  It was a magnificent sight, such as has never been equaled before in Dayton.  This feature of the affair was well worth all the money spent upon it.    

     “The general clamor continued for an hour, during which all the bands played, bells rang and whistles of every description in every part of the city, factory, locomotive, traction and fire engines joined.  The general noise committee of 100, headed by Harry Feicht as chairman, certainly did itself proud.”

     It was a two-day affair, two glorious, and as Daytonians of that day told themselves, never-to-be-forgotten day.  Yet at this moment, but a generation removed, a review of the affair is as much a matter of news as are the current world-events flowing from leased wires to the desk of the telegraph editor.

     The program of addresses at the Grand Opera House on the evening of the second day brought the festivities to a close.  Referring to the fact that the exercises were being held within a stone’s throw of where their forefathers had landed just 100 years before, S. W. Davies assumed the role of master of ceremonies, and introduced the distinguished speakers.

     “Attracted to this section by the rich promise of the soil; by the stories of spreading valleys and wooded hills, of broad streams and fertile lowlands—stories brought to them by earlier explorers of the great Indian hunting grounds—came these brave and hardy venturers, courting the countless ills, the labor and the perils that crowd themselves into the life of the pioneer,” said Frank Conover in the principal address of the evening.

     “In these latter years titles of honor are lavishly bestowed and lightly worn, but is there any title we may give today that can compare in glory and in worth with that by which we designate these men and women of a century ago, the simple name of pioneer?  What does the word not picture to those who read our history aright, of courage, faith and hope, of strong will and stout hearts, of patience and endurance under privation, of loyal brotherhood and mutual aid, of trust in their own strength reverently resting upon their firmer trust in God?

     “Within a stone’s throw of the spot where lay that night the rude vessel that had borne them into the heart of the wilderness, we have builded a monument to their warrior sons who yet were not more bold and patriotic, more worthy of our remembrance, more deserving of our gratitude than they.  We have overshadowed that landing place with the walls and towers of a great temple of education   Let us see to it that another monument be reared which shall perpetuate the memory of those soldiers of the rifle and axe, who fought for us against the elements, against the rocks and forests, against beast and savage, against bodily ills and suffering, the battles of a frontier life.  Let us see to it that our children and our children’s children are taught in that great school to give them ‘Honor and reverence and the good repute that follow faithful service as its fruit.’

     “It is impossible even to touch upon enough of the important events in the early history of Dayton to give any adequate idea of the city’s rapid advancement.  One hundred years ago the population was less than a score.  Ninety years ago it had grown to 383; in 1830 it had increased to 1000 and in 1880 it boasted of 2953 souls.  In 1798 the taxes collected were $29.74; in 1804 this was swelled to $458.40, while in 1814-15 the then tremendous sum of $3280.51.

     “The years from 1800 to 1840 teemed with life, growth, development, action.  In every department of human thought, in every avenue of human energy, these years were rich in accomplishment.  We can do nothing better to stimulate the best sentiment of patriotism and public spirit in our children than to open to them the study of the history of our own city.  Its records are filled with the names of good men, good citizens, men of brain and character and high purpose.  The roll is a proud one.  There are lessons not for the children alone, but for their fathers, too, in the unselfishness and devotion to public good, the honesty, the strong integrity, the broad vision and courageous living up to conviction of these men of early Dayton.

     “If the citizens who meet to celebrate the second centennial of this city find reason to speak of us and of our sons and daughters as we can truly speak tonight of the pioneers of the century just closed, we will not have lived in vain.

     “Our Dayton! while we ponder on the past,

     And laud the virtues of her sires gone;

     Prophetic vision onward, too, we cast,

     As the new century’s birth we gaze upon.

     May all the sturdy spirit of thy sons

     Whose names tonight we garland with our praise

     Descend upon us, that there may be done

     Such noble works as theirs, in coming days.

     May all our pride in thee bear fruit in deeds,

     In action for our city’s highest good;

     May we but seek to meet they future needs

     In service as one common brotherhood!”