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Some Things Dayton Historians Overlooked

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, March 4, 1934

Some Things Dayton Historians Overlooked

By Howard Burba




            Looking back across the years one finds quaint and unusual chapters in Dayton’s history. But they are chapters not contained in the histories so far published. One must need go into that greatest of all local histories, the one and only complete history of Dayton, to find these really picturesque chapters. One must search the files of early Dayton Newspapers.

            Here is a chapter, for instance, that no local historian has thought to incorporate in his writings – the story of old “Dan the Hermit.” He was not entitled to distinction for any service he ever rendered science, religion or the public in general. But he demonstrated the practicability of living isolated from the great masses of humanity for more than a score of years.

            Away back in 1874 a reporter for a Dayton newspaper heard the story of “Dan the Hermit” and started out to satisfy his curiosity. It was not a new story even then, but it was new to him, as it must be to a great many of you, so let’s follow him for a moment, and hear the tale as he told it to Dayton readers just 60 years ago:

            “The home of this distinguished hermit,” he wrote, “is situated five miles east of the city on the Xenia pike in Greene co. The traveler, after passing the five-mile stone and looking to the left and a little ahead, will take in the whole situation at a glance. The most rickety, dilapidated, ancient log house conceivable, windows long since fell out, one door is off its hinges, weeds, briars, thorns and thistles overgrow the very threshold. The roof is nearly all gone. Logs are rotted off, the whole place presenting a dreary and desolate appearance. Large figures in white paint on the front near the roof show the date 1820. The surroundings are as forbidding as is the house itself. The old log barn which 50 years ago was the envy of many a farmer, is now without a covering, except here and there a clapboard, more hardy than its fellows, has withstood the winter’s snows and summer’s storms, affording in isolated places a shelter for the peewee, the owl and other members of the feathered tribe. The floor has entirely disappeared; doors disappeared and gone, and in their stead fence rails forming crosses used as substitutes. The whole structure partakes of general decay and is fast sinking into ruin.

            “The eye turns from this picture of desolation and wanders over the farm, but the same decay meets it everywhere.  Fences all rotted down, fields once under a high state of cultivation, but now overgrown with bushes, briars and weeds. The once magnificent orchard of choice fruit trees is dead or rapidly decaying, and tells the tale of persistent neglect.

            “After viewing all this ruin and dilapidation the belief gains strength that hobgoblins, ghosts and ghouls are in quiet possession of the place today. Yet it is and has been for more than two-score years the home of a solitary specimen of the genus homo – a living, moving, orthodox hermit, the wonder and talk of a neighborhood.

            “This individual is a relative of a well-known and highly respectable family, some of whom have lived in that vicinity for the last 70 years. His name is Daniel Harshman, and he is generally known as ‘Dan the Hermit.’ He is about 60 years old and of medium height, long black hair ralling over his shoulders, gray-mixed beard reaching far down on his breast, low receding forehead and dull lead-colored eyes. This will serve as a portrait.

            “His unwashed face and hands and the old rags with which he attempts to clothe his nakedness gives him the most forbidding appearance imaginable. His intellect is of a very low order. It is only with great effort that he converses at all, and then his sentences are of only three or four words. He is easily roused to anger, and at such times it is dangerous to be near him. His eccentricities manifested themselves in his youth and have grown with age.

            “When but a boy Dan preferred being alone and inactive, and would hide himself in some out-of-the-way place for days at a time. His father was wealthy, and at his death willed Dan a farm of 160 acres, now the site of his hermitage, besides other real estate, the value of which is probably $25,000. He has never made provision for the payment of his taxes, neither knowing nor caring anything about them. His brother, John, living nearby, has regularly paid them, and has long since acquired a title to all of his real estate. When told about his taxes being due his invariable answer is: ‘Dont know,’ and it is presumably true that he doesn’t.

            “He attempts to farm a few acres every year. His corn for the last 15 years has never been planted until the middle of July and his wheat seldom put in the ground until the first of December or until snow has fallen. As a consequence, he never raises any grain. This year his corn was only a few feet high and just in tassel when the frost nipped it. His few hills of potatoes are never larger than a small hickory nut. The only crop that he depends upon for his winter’s rations is his apples. They are considerable in number, but not in size. He keeps no hogs, no chickens, no sheep, no cows, but sometimes three or four horses. He has had for the past 16 years and up until recently a team of fine-looking horses that never had harness upon them. When feed was plentiful they were fat and sleek, but towards spring when feed became scarce they grew so poor that it required all of his strength to assist them to their feet. This was repeated year after year until the neighbors opened the doors and gave the animals their freedom. Farmers repeatedly offered him good prices for the horses, but it was of no avail. Sell them he would not.

            “ ‘Dan’ has not been to the city of Dayton for more than 10 years. Then he came in to see ‘what kind of a place it was.’ He rigged up an old horse to a two-horse wagon, getting astride of the animal and, as he told a neighbor after, ‘went to see the sights.’ If he didn’t see them, many Daytonians saw him.

            “An anecdote is told of Dan which illustrates his intelligence. When he was about 80 years of age his father died, leaving a will. One of the witnesses, Judge Huston, well-known in Greene co., had also died and his signature was to be proven in the court at Xenia. Lawyer Nesbitt was employed to manage the case in the court, which he did to the satisfaction of all parties.  When Mr. Nesbitt told Dan that he would be required to pay the court charges, and witnesses as well as his own fees, he handed the lawyer a Mexican dollar and requested him to ‘take the pay out of that.’

            “Dan has not been off his farm for several years. His relatives often urge him to forsake the hermitage and make his home with them, but to no purpose.  He prefers to sleep, eat and mediate in the solitude of his own place. Bread and sometimes meat and other provisions are often taken to him by his brother and family, which alone keeps him from starving. Now and then a clean shirt, or an old coat, is given him, but he refuses to wear them until he is almost naked. He cooks his food, when he has any, in an old crock or upon the live coals of his fire. He drinks out of the same crock. He eats with his fingers, possessing no tableware of any description, with the exception of one old knife which he uses for many purposes. As a usual rule when he has meat he makes his teeth do the carving.

            “There is no bed in the house, and no one can remember ever seeing one in it. He sleeps upon the floor, amid a pile of old rags and straw, alive with vermin. His only bed-fellows are a dog or two and the rats and mice which constantly scamper about the floors and in the walls of the old building. Thus he passes the days of his hermitage, eating when we has anything to eat and sleeping the greater portion of the day and night. What his thoughts are, if he has any, are past finding out.

            “That this account of ‘Dan the Hermit’ is not overdrawn can readily be substantiated by anyone who cares to make a visit to his place out on the Xenia pike.”







            One of the fine old names connected with Dayton history is Nolan. First distinguished by the brilliance of Col. M. P. Nolan, the family has long held a prominent place in Dayton life, and today no name carries greater public esteem nor more interesting memories.  

            So far as I have been able to determine, Col. Nolan, for long years head of this excellent old family saw fit on but one occasion to trace the origin of his clan in the Miami valley. That was back in the year 1887, when he was prevailed upon to write a short sketch for the benefit of local citizens. Col. Nolan was celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of his arrival in Dayton and the years had mellowed him sufficiently to put him in a reminiscent mood. So on the 31st day of October, 47 years ago, he told the story of the Nolan family, a story rich in local lore and certainly deserving of a prominent place in Dayton history.

            “Fifty years ago,” wrote Col. Nolan, “I came to Dayton with my parents. We came all the way from Harrisburg, Pa., in a new wagon and a team of good, gray horses, over the Allegheny mountains. The trip required 21 days. We crossed the Ohio river on a Sunday and spent our first night in Ohio at St. Clairsville; thence westward along the National rd. through Zanesville, Columbus, London and Springfield, where it terminated. Uncle Sam made this highway, and it was a marvelous work. It was macadamized with broken stone and all wagons were required to drive on the stone. It was terrible. Our wagon tires were so rounded down in six days that they looked like old wheels; the shoes of the horses required fastening or resetting at the end of every day, and so constant was the travel that the toll collectors were continuously taking in money and making change. Nothing but specie was received.

            “These toll collectors, located every 10 miles, were federal officeholders, swelled with impudence. It must be remembered that the entire travel from Philadelphia to St. Louis was along this highway. The large Conestoga wagon, of five tons capacity, drawn by six powerful horses, driven by a single line, with hitch-band stays five inches in width, moved slowly east and west. The stage coach, passing both ways, was most always filled with passengers and the ‘boot’ packed with baggage and mail. To it were hitched four fleet horses, controlled by an intelligent and well-dressed driver. The tide of emigrant wagons made up a stream so constantly flowing westward as to become monotonous.

            “The last Sunday of our journey was spent in Springfield, then a village of a few houses scattered along both sides of the road. From there we had mud roads to Dayton, a great relief. The last night we put up at a frame house two miles west of Osborn near the Mad river bridge on the Valley pike. There was a corn-husking at this place that night, the first one I had ever seen. Next day we drove into Dayton, emerging from the sycamore trees onto First st., opposite Swaynie’s Tavern, a two-story brick building. It was the great general tavern stand of that day, and the National hotel on Third st. (site of present Beckel House) was the stage coach hostelry with some pretentions to aristocracy. Another was the old two-story building at the southwest corner of Main and Monument av. The town ceased at Fifth st., going south on Main. On the west the town stopped at Perry st., and from there to the levee my father raised a crop of corn in 1829, and I traversed the long hard rows with a third plow. The soil was black, and so rich that the plow would not ‘scour’ but required constant cleaning with a paddle.

            “First st. ended on the east near the intersection of Sears st. Mad river came down into it, almost crossing it. The river side had to be filled with logs and burch cut from growing buckeye trees to retain the gravel used in making the street eastward. My father stood upon the road at that place and dumped the carts while making the fill in 1839. Third st. was the road from Springfield to Indianapolis. On reaching Dayton I drove the wagon west and stopped on a spot afterward occupied by the Third st. canal bridge. The canal extended no further north then. There were no vacant houses in the town, so we procured a vacant room in a farm house that stood where LaBelle st. now intersects Springfield st. We remained there three weeks until father bought a lot in the ‘suburbs,’ now Franklin st., and we built a one-story house on it. We took our axes and went about 100 yards away and cut all the wood we needed for fuel.

            “I recall September, 1849, as the month of the great Whig mass meeting in Dayton. The stove machine shop of William Callahan was being built for a warehouse by William Huffman on the canal basin. The scaffolding was on the outside and the large poles stood high in the air as the procession passed along the pike from Springfield to the speaker’s stand. This was the largest gathering of people ever known in the county up to that time and for many years after.

            “A few weeks previous Col. R. M. Johnson, the slayer of Tecumseh, made a speech to a large audience. Gov. William Allen also spoke. Johnson, in the battle with Tecumseh, was wounded in the finger, and I remember seeing Gov. Allen holding up the wounded hand of Johnson so the audience could see it.

            “In the fall of 1840 Zeke Burney built a log cabin on the southeast corner of St. Clair and First sts. The coonskin was tacked up against the end of the cabin, the barrel of hard cider was on tap, and the latch-string was hanging out. I was learning wagon-making with the Stoddards, on the southeast corner of Third and St. Clair. The axles were made from clear timber by hewing and shaving; the felloes, bands and all the other parts of the wagon were turned out by hand. Mechanics were then in demand. Wages were from $1.50 to $2 a day. Butter was 10 cents, eggs from 3 cents to 5 cents a dozen, apples 10 cents a bushel and potatoes 25 cents a bushel. I have no recollection of the price of beef, but turkeys were from 15 to 40 cents.  Farmers sold veal by the quarter, and there was never any mention of weight. Hay and wood were sold by the load, neither weighed or measured, and on the streets. There was no hay market then, the wagons stopping anywhere and standing there until someone came along and bought the load of hay or wood. Tie timber was sold in the same way, but was measured, of course. The huckster was then unknown.

            “The travel to Cincinnati was by stage coach and canal packet boats. Emigrants came upon freight boats, the fare being from $1.50 to $2. On the packets you got dinner, supper and a night’s lodging. The fare was excellent. The packets were built with the utmost skill, light, commodious and graceful and were towed by a team of three horses. They would average seven miles an hour, including locks and other delays.

            “Jacob Shank was for long years the veteran plow-maker of Dayton. His plows had a wooden arch beam, with a cast-iron mould board and they sold for $14, with a coulter included.

            “There was a ford across the Miami river at the head of Jefferson st. On crossing the canal at Fifth st. you entered the country, and there was a woods of small jack oak at what later became Fifth and Brown. Then commenced the road to Xenia, Beavertown and Shaker Village. The circus lot was where the Lowe Brothers paint store stands (now the southwest corner of Third and Jefferson). The market house, a shed, rested on hickory pillars, and extended only halfway along Market st., east from Main. Joseph Bimm was the leading butcher. There were one or two others. The principal lawyers were Odlin, Stoddard, Schenck, Anderson and P. P. Lowe. The leading physicians were Vantuvi, Davies, Terry and Clement.

            “The old court house, the predecessor of the present old court house, stood immediately on the corner, two steps from the pavement. It was plain, of brick, 40X40 feet, its two stories finished inside in primitive style. Judge Helenstine was on the bench. The jail then was on the corner of the lot, and just east of the present one. The county offices were located in a long two-story brick building fronting on Main st., and extending north from the court house. Here also was the postoffice.

            “The rear of this building and the court house lot was unfenced but on Third st., a fence extended from the court house to the jail. This inside space was covered with piles of leather chips from McManus’ shoe shop; heaps of wood ashes, fragments of boards, cord wood, scraps of paper, store boxes, sawdust and sweepings of nearby rooms. The hook and ladder wagon stood here, exposed to the weather, and here the hogs slept in rows, or in a family group. The town cows and their visitors resorted to this favored spot at nights and animals of leisure, known to the law as ‘strays,’ passed their summer in this quiet precinct where a still-hunt by their distressed owners usually located them.

            “Canal boat building was a local industry of some importance, conducted by Webber Bros. The coopering business was then immense, giving employment to hundreds of coopers. The Crawfords had a last and peg factory on Main st., just below where the railroad crosses Main. The newel-wheels were barrels secured to wooden shafting and driven by horsepower. The gunsmith was a prominent man in those days, the rifle being then made by hand, lock and all. A gun barrel factory was conducted by the Wilt Brothers. They did the whole of the work themselves. The bridge on Main st. was built when we came, of domestic timber, and Stoneberger was hewing and whipsawing the stone and timber for a covered bridge across the river at Third st. when we came to Dayton. The timber was clear pine, and was shipped up here from New Orleans by way of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, and then up the canal from Cincinnati. Charles Burrows had a saw mill on the canal where Fifth st. crosses it, and right along the tow-path. The public schools have entirely developed since by coming.

            “That has been a half-century ago. Who is there to predict that future advancement will be as great as it was in those 50 years between 1837 and 1887?”