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Dayton, Ohio - An Intimate History
Chapter Five





In the ‘thirties and ‘forties Dayton was afflicted mainly with politics and the cholera. Which was the greatest scourge would be hard to say. The canal was a grand institution but it had its disadvantages and brought other things besides passengers and freight to our shores. The worst cargo it imported was the cholera. It was in the summer of 1833 that a whole boat-load arrived from Cincinnati suffering from some mysterious digestive disorder. The captain would not bring his passengers up into the middle of town, but discharged them onto the bank of the canal at the foot of Ludlow Street. Twenty-five patients suffering from cramps and fever were taken to one house (it is to be wished we knew where) and put, with utter disregard of the first principles of prevention, into one room. It must have been a warehouse for no Dayton private home at that day could accommodate so many. Of course (vide Mr. Scott in the previous chapter), there was no board of health, no hospital, no provision whatever for the care of contagious diseases or of any other kind. Every mother of a family was a nurse perforce, and the only one, except kind neighbors who were angels in disguise in the last century. Anyhow, here were several dozen people, helpless and suffering excruciatingly, to be looked after somehow, someway by people already overworked. A doctor and two nurses (the latter untrained of course) volunteered to care for the patients. In two days both nurses were dead and the doctor himself down with the same complaint. Every day saw a funeral procession wending it way to the Fifth Street graveyard. There could be no doubt about it; it was the cholera, and nothing else, that had invaded Dayton. Such diseases are better understood now and two precautions stand out – sanitation and segregation. Neither was understood or practiced in 1833. Cesspools in close proximity to wells, open gutters carrying road-washings to the river, no kind of supervision of the removal of refuse, open garbage pails at every back door, all these were the usual thing in the Dayton of that day.

These combined to give a warm welcome to the cholera germs and they made the most of it. With dreadful suddenness people were taken ill at breakfast time and died before sundown. Panic invaded the city. Those who had private carriages (there were only two in 1820 so probably they were quite few in 1833) left for Cincinnati as fast as they could, a useless procedure because the cholera was just as bad down there. Strong men died and little children died, mothers died leaving helpless families; it was a time of terror such as only those who have been through it can know.

Sporadic outbreaks continued to occur for several years and in 1849 another violent epidemic was experienced when two hundred and sixteen lives were lost out of the small village in one short summer. With the point of view of the day this calamity was charged up to the Lord when the responsibility of it really belonged to the authorities themselves. A proclamation from the mayor set apart a day, not for cleaning up the streets and alleys, but for fasting and prayer, beginning: “Whereas it has pleased Almighty God to afflict our beloved city by sending the pestilence among us,” etc., etc. What blasphemy!

Local and national politics took hold of the populace with as much violence as the cholera. The epidemic broke out at election time and people caught it from each other. Because they had so few interests, politics took as strong a hold on them as religion or the plague. Read the accounts of the Jackson campaign as it was carried on in Dayton in 1833. Bonfires and processions, hundreds of people coming in from the country, banquets at the hotel, flag-raisings on the Common, speeches in the square, bitter denunciation of candidates and more bitter opposition for those who upheld them; business men refusing to do business with men of the opposite party, neighbors not speaking on the street, vitriolic attacks in the newspapers and even in the pulpits – oh, the cholera was only a very little worse. The difference being that while they died of cholera they did not die of politics, they only raged and fought and forgot about it when election was over. In the Jackson campaign some amusing incidents occurred as when his election was celebrated by a barbecue on the Commons east of the canal. The ox that participated had been too long out of cold storage and was eaten, not by the fervent patriots of the occasion, but by dogs which, attracted by the odors of burning meat, gathered to pay their tribute to the Presidential candidate.

The Harrison campaign of 1840 was a remarkable occasion and need not at all be treated with satire. What Dayton did at that time was a great thing for a small town to do and merits a story of its own. The national situation was this. In 1836 Martin Van Buren had been elected over William Henry Harrison. The former was an aristocrat with the standards of his class. Believing in the amenities of life he had refurnished the out of date White House with carpets, mirrors and curtains, all offensive to the puritanistic spirit of the time.

Harrison was a plain Ohio farmer, a gentleman too, but not of the brand of the man who sat in the bedecked White House. Harrison was not only a friend of the people but, since the War of 1812, had been the idol of the Nation. An attempt to make political capital out of his plain tastes and antecedents was made by the Baltimore “Republican,” which said editorially of Harrison: “Give him a barrel of hard cider and settle a pension of two thousand dollars on him and our word for it, he would sit the remainder of his days contentedly in a log cabin.”

This was enough! It was not the first time, nor the last, in the history of politics that a slogan has proved to be a boomerang and done more harm to its friends than to its enemies. The implication in the editorial was enough for the Great West, the West of the plain people, grown up in log cabins and on hard cider and proud of both. Harrison was dubbed the “Log Cabin candidate,” and his followers the “Log Cabin Boys,” and they made the campaign rallies the occasion of “cabin raisings.” It was a throwback to the time when the greatest fun of the early settlers was to gather from near and far and raise a cabin for the latest arrivals.

The Whigs did a modern thing; they brought out a newspaper in behalf of their party projects and called it the “Log Cabin.” These ancient sheets, yellow with age and brown with flood water, are still the greatest treasure of the Dayton Public Library. Local politics of the day are to be seen in its pages, the scare-heads in bold face type, the whoop-em-up slogans which in spite of their antiquity have a familiar sound – “National Prosperity: Civil Liberties: Our Noble Candidate.” To this sheet, more probably than to any other influence, was due the election of Harrison to the Presidency. A glance at it will show that they took their politics seriously in those days. Never would they have conceived such a necessity as is implied in the modern slogan” “Get out the Vote.”

Here is the invitation which was printed in the issue of July 25, 1840:





For President – William Henry Harrison


For Vice-President – John Tyler


For Governor of Ohio – Thomas Corwin – “The Wagon Boy”


To the People of the United States,  more particularly to those of the West, and most particularly to all in the Miami Valley.

You are invited by your fellow citizens of Montgomery County to convene with them in a Grand Council at Dayton on the anniversary of our gallant Perry’s Victory, on September 10th, 1840.

                                          Come  One!                                          Come  All!  


Take in the breadth, the depth and height of his pronouncement! Here was a little city of less than seven thousand souls all told, few of them rich, many of them poor, having but two small hotels and no railroad, bravely offering to entertain “the people of the United States” within her borders for three whole days.

Did they come? Ask the old “Log Cabin!” For days preceding the event crowds began to gather, swarming into Dayton by stage and canal, on foot, on horseback, in private vehicles, whole families, troops of soldiers; they came from all the land in the Miami Valley, from Illinois and Missouri; twelve canal boats filled with delegates arrived from Mississippi and Louisiana. The turnpikes showed a black procession by day and an illuminated one by night with the camp fires of voters coming to greet their beloved candidate, until the total according to the careful computation by a local engineer,* reached a hundred thousand.

The first and natural query will be, how did Dayton take care of them? We can search it out in the annals of that day and the testimony of private letters. Many camped by the roadside, tying their horses to a tree, seeking provisions in the neighboring farms and cooking over an open fire. Those who had the means filled up the two hotels. When the Swaynie and the National had no more bedspace the private homes took the overflow as best they might. Preparations had not been lacking. For weeks and weeks housekeepers


*Luther Bruen

had been making ticks and filling them with fresh straw. As the house kept filling up with these improvised beds, the pantries bore shelves loaded with hams, baked fowls, loaves of bread, jars of preserves, pickles and honey. Beds were laid in one house side by side down a long upper hall and that family took care of one hundred guests at night and three hundred for dinner.+  Notice was given to the effect that a stranger might knock at any door that displayed a flag and receive dinner and bed. There were but seven hundred homes in Dayton at that time and it is told that six hundred and forty-four of them displayed flags.

This was great, but greater still was the entry of the procession bringing to Dayton the hero of the hour. It came by way of the Springfield Pike. The Log Cabin hero and his staff spent the night at Harshman’s Station, four miles east of Dayton. On beginning the trip into Dayton the next morning they were met by a welcoming procession which, with the floats and carriages in the Harrison crowd, was said to measure four miles in length. With carriages three abreast, and scores on horseback, the head of the procession was coming into town by the canal basin while the end of it was still leaving Harshman’s.

This is the way the “Log Cabin” reported the scene:


The huzzas from gray-headed patriots as the banners born in the procession passed their balconies, the waving handkerchiefs of the thousands of fair women, the glimpses at every turn of the eye of the fluttering folds of six hundred and forty-four flags, the soul stirring music, the smiling heavens, the emblems and mottoes, all added to the intensity of the excitement. Every eminence, housetop and window was thronged with eager spectators whose acclamations seemed to rend the heavens. Second Street at that time led through a prairie and the bystanders by a metaphor the sublimity of which few but Westerners can appreciate, likened the enthusiasm to a mighty sea of fire sweeping over its surface gathering and heaving and rolling upwards till its flames licked the stars and fired the whole heavens.


Making all allowances for the heated enthusiasm of the day that procession must have been remarkable. An immense log cabin on wheels, with the usual accompaniments of a coon skin nailed onto the logs and a barrel of hard cider, was drawn along the road by six horses. A ball as large as a one-story house represented the states rolling up for Harrison. It had been trundled along from the top of the Alleghany Mountains and bore the legend: “This ball we roll with heart and soul.” Twenty-six little girls, seated in a big canoe, carried each the banner of her State. A live wolf, covered with sheepskin (signifying the hypocritical designs of the Democrats) occupied a wagon all to himself and was said to behave as well as the rest.

The reception in Dayton proved worthy of the occasion. A long banner at the corner of Main and Second streets had on one side a log cabin, and on the other a ship in full sail with the inscription, “Roll on the ball” and “Perry, September 10th, 1813.” At the corner of Jefferson hung a white silk banner with the words “Jefferson Street honors him whom Jefferson honored.” On Third, at the courthouse, “No standing army” and “Resistance to Tyrants is obedience to God.”

As the journey had taken all the morning the first thing on the program was dinner at eleven o’clock at the Swaynie House, whence later the distinguished guest was escorted to the “Common,” east of St. Clair Street, where the soldiers had camped in 1812. It was


+H. G. Phillips


 there that General Harrison made a speech which, according to the accounts of that day, could be heard clear to the river and by an audience of not less than one hundred thousand people.

After the speech more presentations of banners and a plough from the Tippecanoe delegation with which Harrison was expected to “plough up the thistles and briars of the last administration” The ladies of the city presented a white silk banner painted by the artist, Charles Soule, but could not make the presentation speech themselves, so Judge Daniel Haynes came to their assistance. Not since then, until the Wright celebration, in 1909, has Dayton seen such a crowd and such wild enthusiasm. But the glory must go to the earlier date, not because the occasion was greater but because Dayton was smaller. Nothing that can ever happen here can mar the grandeur of the Harrison Campaign rally, nor equal the all-embracing hospitality of the little town.

Little has been said so far in these pages on the subject of education  and schools, but that must not indicate that the parents and citizens of Dayton were blind to such needs. Earlier chapters told of Benjamin Van Cleve’s school in the block house and this chapter with its lugubrious heading will be a good place to tell the school story and mitigate the horrors of “Politics and Pestilence.” They might have epidemics both of cholera and politics but they never lost sight of the fact that the future of a community depends upon the education given to its children.

Conventions are thought-breeding and action-bearing occasions and one of them, a school convention, was what happened to Dayton in August, 1836, a noteworthy occasion because it brought an entirely new idea into the minds of citizens. This was no less than the plan of free public schools. Up to this time “dame schools” were carried on tor the girls, and schools, taught by a man, for the boys, the expenses of both being paid by the parents. Now it seemed, from indications in the outside world, that the proper thing to do in a democracy like the United States was to install schools in buildings owned by the community, to employ teachers paid by the community, and make education absolutely free to every child no matter what the financial status of his parents. It was no less than revolutionary. Nevertheless, after three days spent in listening to distinguished school authorities, the convention not only advocated free schools but also the establishment of free normal schools that the cause of education might never lack trained teachers.

Among the attendants at this meeting was Rev. W. H. McGuffey, whose name will always be connected with a set of readers which he compiled and which were used for fifty years or more in the schools. These six readers, with their excerpts from the classics, are answerable for the first appreciation of real prose and poetry which many people had. In the dearth of libraries and book-stores, the McGuffey readers brought to the young people and to their parents as well the treasures of Shakespeare, Scott, Dickens and Tennyson.

The concrete results of this meeting may still be found in the pages of the “Dayton Journal” which gave a full report and its support to the school plan. Resolutions to the effect that such schools should be established, that normal schools should make teaching a real profession, that geology and physiology should be introduced into the curriculum, and that a periodical should be published called “The Teachers Magazine,” will not make the impression now that they did then because now they are the veriest commonplaces. At that time, when teaching was a haphazard sort of profession which anybody could carry on provided he knew his A B C’s, such pronouncements as came from this meeting were too advanced to be accepted without protest. The date should be remembered, it was August 1836, ninety-five years ago, and it was the seed-planting of our Dayton Public School system.

To read of the efforts of our fellow-citizens of an earlier day towards the cultural things of life is touching and impressive. Far as they were from the sophisticated East, limited as they were for funds, burdened as they were with the hard conditions of living, these plain men took time from their absorbing duties and reached out for the higher things of life. They were not willing to live by bread alone, nor that their children should.

We have already told the story of that first library on its wooden shelves in the home of Benjamin Van Cleve. The books were paid for with coon skins and packed across the mountains on mule-back. Little by little, under the influence of the reading aristocracy of the little town, other collections of books were gathered and kept like the first one in private houses and circulated among the citizens. That they were treasures and constantly read goes on without saying. One tangible result proved to be the Dayton Lyceum Association organized in 1833; its object was somewhat pompously proclaimed as, “the diffusion of knowledge and the promotion of sociability.” Meetings were held every week “for lectures, essays and discussions of all subjects except theology and the politics of the day.” There was no way, it is plain, to avoid having the literary programs degenerate into affrays ending in broken noses except by the wise provision “except theology and the politics of the day.” This Lyceum lasted several years and was supplanted by the “Mechanics Institute” with its library (a combination of the scattered books) reading rooms and a course of lectures each winter.

H. G. Phillips, building at the time a three-story block on the corner of Main and Second streets, was much commended because he had especially planned a room for library purposes. One of the earliest impressions of the author is standing with her father in the middle of the biggest room she had ever seen and lined completely with books. It was described as being “elegantly and handsomely furnished, second to none in Ohio.” An old cut published in the “Daily Gazette” May 27, 1854, shows impressive Corinthian columns, gilt chandeliers, book shelves, globes, reading tables, and six gentlemen all with their hats on. The implication of the latter point must not be lost. Reading was done by gentlemen in correct afternoon dress; those who lived on First and Second streets and elegant residential Jefferson, not by the Irish on the Commons south of town. Anyhow they justified their ornamental existence by taking “noblesse oblige” literally. They shared the little they had of leisure and the results of reading with their fellow-citizens, hats off!

Of this early library in the Phillips Building one thing may be certainly noted: The books were all good books – Shakespeare and Milton, Defoe, Hugo, Lamartine, Scott, Irving; there was history, essay and travel; but little fiction perhaps, for novels were looked at askance seventy-five years ago. One reader,* in a letter of October 1854, says: “The Phillips Building is a fine block. I don’t think it has its equal in Cleveland” (where he had come from). “Right across the hall from our office is the library room. I think I


*Dr. J. C. Reeve


 shall subscribe immediately; it is five dollars per year and six payments entitle one to a life ticket. . . . They have a good supply of books, among them Miss Pardoe’s Court of Louis Fourteenth.”

As for the lectures which were given every winter in the Mechanics Institute, history fails to record them and the minutes are lost. But we know who could have given lectures, and interesting ones, too, on history, botany and ornithology, architecture and art: they were, for they were lovers and readers of books: John Van Cleve, Robert C. Schenck, Wilber Conover, Peter Odlin, E. W. Davies, Robert A. Thruston, E. E. Barney, Charles Anderson, Judge Haynes, J. D. Phillips, Joseph H. Crane.

From this then magnificent beginning, the Dayton Library has progressed, first into the upper story of the City Hall, and then in 1888 to the center of Cooper Park, so that having been housed in its infancy under the roof of Benjamin Van Cleve it is in its maturity still under the spiritual charge of another of the  pioneers who gave the ground on which it stands.

A great deal was made of the Fourth of July in the early years of Dayton. The “spirit of 76” was kept alive in very practical ways. Take the celebration of 1816 for an example. First they met and appointed a committee of arrangements, then they decided on somebody to be toastmaster, then they notified the “ladies” that their patriotic duties would include providing a big dinner. On this particular occasion Isaac Spining was president for the day, and Van Cleve read Washington’s Farewell Address; patriotic toasts were offered and one hundred persons sat down to dinner. At four o’clock the ladies and gentlemen assembled “in the adjacent woods” (Perry Street, probably, considering the date. Ten years later it would have been Steele’s Hill across the river) and had supper. A ball at Colonel Reid’s Inn in the evening and vocal music at Mr. Bomberger’s  finished the perfect day. They took everything hard in those days. With the seriousness of children they perpetrated politics, religion and merry-making in a way that makes our modern activities seem tepid. Perhaps it was the way to make life worth while as they went along.

The thrilling news of the year 1823 is that the first menagerie came to town. It consisted of a moth-eaten African lion, a leopard in the same condition and an elephant. Some difficulty was experienced in finding a place to keep the elephant, he being too tall for the prevailing type of wood shed, so a barn was commandeered and the little boys saw the show without a ticket by peeping through knot holes. We hazard the guess that just as much of a show was the first camp meeting, for a thousand persons were in attendance and there were many baptisms in the river. Real shows, that is the theatre, were not yet a part of Dayton’s recreational interests but the beginning of such was probably the “elegant comedy called “Matrimony” which the paper announced “would be performed at the home of William Huffman on St. Clair Street. Tickets fifty cents.” April 22, 1816.

This same year we find listed on the City Council the names of D. C. Cooper, Joseph Peirce, H. G. Phillips, O. B. Conover and George Grove. In 1817 the Sunday School Association, the first religious organization not a church, was organized by the Rev. Bacchus Wilbur, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church. Mr. Wilbur was a very prominent and popular preacher, so much so that there were quite a number of babies named after him, most of whom for reasons of their own, dropped the given name in adult life. The dues of this organization were twenty-five cents a year, and the roll held such well known names as Mrs. J. H. Crane, Mrs. W. R. S. Ayres, Mrs. Hannah George, Joseph Peirce, Sarah Bomberger.

In 1821 a severe fever, perhaps an exaggerated type of the malaria which had so discouraged the first dwellers in Dayton, made its appearance in Dayton in epidemic form, and among those who were carried to the Fifth Street graveyard were Joseph Peirce and that stalwart defender of Dayton’s prosperity, Benjamin Van Cleve.

That this narrative is not carried on with the strict observance of chronology the reader is of course aware. The object is, however, not to keep strictly to the course of the years but to present a picture of life as it was, that those whose ancestors were responsible for Dayton may know how and why they did it.


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