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A Proud Old Pioneer Family

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, November 25, 1934


A Proud Old Pioneer Family

By Howard Burba


If you’ll take the map of the little state of Maryland and look to its northwest corner you will find, sweeping along the eastern shores of the broad Potomac, a county call “Frederick.”

            In no respect does it differ particularly from any other county in the state, or a county in any other state. But, if you could make a personal visit to Frederick co., Maryland, you would find a race of people just a little bit closer to your idea of what the pioneers in this country were like than you are apt to find in most any other county. You will find, too, a rather close connection between the older residents of that community and this, for Frederick co., Maryland, was the county from whence came the largest number of early Miami Valley settlers.

            Just why this section should have loomed so large in the eyes of Frederick co. people some one hundred and thirty years ago is not easy to explain. All we know is that among the first of the original thirteen settlers in Dayton were two from that county, and that it was not long after Dayton was plated and opened as a townsite until dozens of Frederick co. citizens were starting a trek toward the Northwest territory that was steadily maintained for a great many years. Whole colonies of them came into Ohio; most of them to the Miami Valley. Today hundreds of families in this section of the state trace their ancestors to that locality.

            Among the Frederick co. families seeking a new home in the west was that of the Kemps. Lewis and Elizabeth Kemp and their family of eight children, left Frederick co. in 1806 and came to Montgomery co. Kemp visited around a little and his eyes fell upon a tract of land in what is now known as Mad River tp. He learned that it could be purchased for $10 an acre, so he proceeded to buy up a generous tract of it. He bought 822 acres. Then he set about the task of rearing that flock of eight – Jacob, Isaac, Joseph, David, Samuel, Mary, Catherine and Margaret.

            The mother, Elizabeth, died on April 13, 1827, at the age of 72 years, but not until she had seen her little flock safely on their way to the making of good and substantial citizens. For 15 years Lewis Kemp toiled on, enriching his land, growing in the esteem and respect of his neighbors and becoming more and more power in the progress and up building of the community. On Dec. 24, 1842, he passed on, having attained the age of 82 years.

            At the time the Kemps settled on that rich tract high above and overlooking a broad terrain later to be known as the Huffman Prairie, and today the site of Wright Field, Mad River, coursing at its extreme northern boundary, was attaining prominence as a mill stream. It had a fall of 150 feet between Springfield and Dayton and as a result the pioneer miller and distiller was quick to seize upon its advantages as a power producer. At one time, in the heyday of the industry, there were 13 distilleries located on the banks of Mad river between here and Springfield with a combined output of 17,500 gallons of whiskey every 24 hours.

            In that early day there was much distilling, on a small scale, on the inland farms of the township, many of the early settlers owning copper stills each capable of consuming 12 to 15 bushels of “mash” per day.

            Among those quick to recognize the profit in distilling were Lewis Kemp and his son, Jacob. The former established his distillery on the old home acres, the latter on a tract which in later years became known as the Barbara Steele farm, Mrs. Steele being before her marriage Miss Barbara Kemp. These pioneers in the industry prospered and invested their profits in Mad River tp. land, the original tract of 822 acres being swelled to more than 1000 before they were incapacitated for active work.

            Over in the Montgomery co. courthouse may be found the original deed to these vast tracts. The one granting Lewis Kemp title to his acres was signed by President James Madison. Another, granting title to acres owned by his father, Ludwick Kemp, bears the signature of Thomas Jefferson, and is dated in 1807. On one of these documents also appears another name famous in Ohio history, that of Edward Tiffin, the first land commissioner in the Northwest Territory.

            Ludwick Kemp had lived in Mad River tp. but a few years when a number of deaths in the neighborhood made the opening of a cemetery necessary. There was no regular graveyard in the township in 1815, so it was decided to establish a permanent place of burial. A little tract was fenced off in the northwest corner of the original acreage held by Lewis Kemp, and donated it to the township for burial purposes. It became the first cemetery in the township and to it were brought a number of bodies which had been buried in convenient spots throughout the neighborhood.

            The Kemp graveyard was the place of sepulcher for that section of the county for many years and a large number of the pioneers rest there, among whom are members of the Kemp, Suman and Cramer families. The first person buried in the cemetery was John B. Harshman, about 1816 or 1817, but his remains were later removed to the Harshman graveyard at the settlement which bore his name, now known as Riverside. For many years the Kemp graveyard served as the township’s burial place and then a second one was opened on a hill near a strip of woodland but a few miles away. It was called the Dille graveyard.

            One has only to scan the history of Mad River tp. for the year 1815, the one in which the Kemp graveyard was established, to discover the strong community spirit manifested by the Kemps. It was in this same year that citizens of the township say the need for a commodious public school, so they turned, quite naturally, to Lewis Kemp for counsel. In November of 1815, he donated still another strip from his vast acreage, this time for the erection of a school building. He explained, however, that since it was to be a public affair it was not natural that the matter of financing the building itself should devolve upon Mad River tp. Accepting that suggestion, pioneer citizens began passing a subscription paper and that document is now among the treasured papers dealing with the county’s earliest history.

            Here are the names of subscribers as they appeared on the old Kemp schoolhouse list, together with the amounts subscribed: a veritable roll call of the first residents of old Mad River tp.:

            Joseph Kemp, $6; Jacob Kemp, $6; Jonathan Harshman, $6; Alex. Snodgrass, $2; Robb McReynolds, $6; Henry Robinson, $2;  Joseph Rench and John, $4; John Jordan, $2; David Rench, $1; Adam Gerlough, jr., $3; Jacob Rothamel, $2; Henry Butt, $1; Isaac Kemp, $1.25; William Krise, $1.50; Samuel Eylar, $1.25; John Cyphers, $1.25; John Rike, $1.25; McLean and Belt, $2.50 in stone; James Gillespie, $4; George Newcom, $2; John Roby, $2; Joseph E. Cottingham, $2; William Owens, 2 days’ work or $2.50; Samuel Heffley, one gallon of whiskey; John McKaig, $1.25; Jacob Worman, $1.50; Leonard Broadstone, $4; Jacob Esley, 62 ½ c.

            Mad River tp. had been struggling along with a little school that had served the settlers’ children since 1798. But when the new log building, made possible by the above cash donations and by labor later contributed, was opened with Isaac Kemp as its first schoolmaster, it was the last word in educational institutions in the county.

            The old Kemp school did not stand, contrary to general belief, on the site of the present structure bearing that name, and which has, within recent months been converted into a beer garden. The original Kemp school house was within a few feet of the original Kemp graveyard. A visit to the spot today will give but a general idea of where its log walls rose from the ground, for not a vestige remains to indicate in any possible way that it ever existed.

            A few feet away, however, are toppled stones showing the site of the old graveyard, but even this spot is far off the beaten path and seldom viewed by anyone save for the occasional visit of a descendent of the Kemp family. But two stones remain standing, though sunken grasspots here and there reveal that at one time it was the resting place of dozens of pioneer residents. Youth at its destructive age has left its handiwork in the old burial ground, many of the headstones having been pushed over by thoughtless boys of the neighborhood. Some of these have been covered by the tall grass which has for more that a century maintained its verdure and loveliness.

            Up to a few years ago fully a dozen stately maple trees graced the plot, some of them close to 100 years old. Promoters of an airport, insistent that the trees interfered with their project, sought permission of the Kemp heirs to remove them. This was refused whereupon they stole into the sacred spot at night and maliciously belted the trees so deeply that all but one wilted and died within the year. That there is such thing as a retributive justice is to be – found in the fact that the airport itself proved to be a notorious failure.

            Kemp school, built of logs as previously stated, rested on stone pillars and was “chinked” solidly with clay between its logs. The floor was of the “puncheon” type, wooden pegs fastening the floor boards in place since nails were unknown in that day. School was maintained three months out of the year. During the other nine months the children could not be spared from work. Before the subscription paper to secure funds for it was started, this “article of agreement” was drawn up, signed and legally sealed by Ludwick and Isaac Kemp:

            “Articles of agreement made this 7th day of November, 1815; Between the subscribers of 2 township and 7 range of the one part, and Lewis Kemp, of township 2, range 7 of the other part. Witnesseth that the said Lewis Kemp doth bind himself and his heirs and executors or administrators in the pennel sum of two hundred dollars to make ginneril warntee deed unto the trustees and successors in office as soon as the subscribers may have elected them, for one acres of land, adjoining a line between sections No. 16 and 22, township 2, range 7, whare the trustees may pitch upon some whare near Powerses improvement. It is further agreed that this acre of land above mentioned is to remain for the use of school and no other forever.”

            From that one pioneer family of eight children there sprang many descendants. The years found them scattering to the four points of the compass, but always the original Kemp acres housed a family by the name, fine men and women who have been active in the religious, social and industrial life of the Miami valley.

            Possibly you can get a fair idea of the growth of this proud old family when I tell you that as far back as 1896 – almost 40 years ago – a family reunion was held in a grove on the Kemp homestead, within sight of the old schoolhouse, at which more than 250 descendants of the original Lewis Kemp family registered.

            The grandchildren of the pioneer Kemps who were at that reunion represented some of the most substantial citizens of their entire community. Doubtless you will recognize some of the names. They were:

            George W. and David, sons of Joseph Kemp, and their sisters, Miss Margaret Kemp, Mrs. Barbara Steele and Mrs. Catherine Burrows.

            Lewis A. Kemp, son of Isaac Kemp.

            David C. and Joshua Perry Kemp, sons of David Kemp, and their sisters, Mrs. Harriet Kneisley and Mrs. David Mover.

            George W. Kemp’s daughter, Mrs. Kate Mellinger and her brothers, Frank and Warren Kemp.

            Lewis A. Kemp’s son, August Kemp, and daughters, Mrs. Joseph Strain and Mrs. Ada Walker.

            Lewis Kemp’s daughters, Alice Kemp. Mrs. Louisiana Wood and Mrs. Harriet Dodson.

            Mrs. Harriet Kneisley’s daughters, Miss Ida Kneisley, Mrs. Carrie Buehler.

            Mrs. David Moler’s daughter, Mrs. Lou Coblentz, and son, William Moler.

            David C. Kemp’s sons, David, Johnson and Norval, and daughter, Miss Bertha Kemp.

            The only representatives of the fifth generation of Ludwick Kemp present at the reunion were Howard Dodson Moehlman and Arthur Kemp Moehlman, sons of Charles and Eleanor Dodson Moehlman. These boys are the great-great-grandsons of the original Ludwick Kemp.

            For two hours the 250 Kemps and their kindred sat about the long, well-ladened tables in the grove and communed in a fellowship which served to knit closer the relationship which, of one blood, binds them as with hoops of steel to that little pioneer family which braved danger and hardship in its trek across the mountains and through an almost uncharted wilderness to a home in the Great Miami valley. Then an enterprising newspaper photographer appeared and “lined up” some of the oldest of those present for a group photograph. These grandchildren of Ludwick Kemp posed for that picture: George W. Kemp, aged 85; Lewis A. Kemp; Mrs. William Walker, aged 80; Miss Margaret Kemp, aged 84; Mrs. Barbara Steele, aged 82; Mrs. Catherine Burrows, aged 78, and William Steele, aged 80.

            It was a great reunion, but only in keeping with the spirit of this remarkable family. It was not the first reunion of this clan, nor the last. Even yet the descendants of the original Kemps gather annually to count their blessings, to mingle in a fellowship good for the soul and in memory return to earlier days of simple living; days when the broad highway now known as Kemp rd. was but a trail over which the crude vehicle of the pioneer Kemps wound its way as, toil-strained and wary from the long trek from Maryland, they sought out the virgin acres awaiting them.

            They think back to that day in 1806 when the first of their name built a crude shelter near the clear waters of McDonald’s creek and set about clearing a spot in the wilderness. They see again the father and sons toiling by day and resting their weary bodies on bunks which had to serve until the day when beds could be provided; the mother and daughters preparing the meals in the open until such time as a permanent abode could be erected.

            And then they have a vision of that first real house of the first Kemps in Ohio, substantial two-story, hewed log house, with glass windows shingled roof attached to boards with nails hammered out in the little nearby settlement of Dayton. There wasn’t, early historians tell us, a better or more comfortable house in all this neighborhood than that original Kemp homestead. There was plenty of help in the family and the father saw to it that there was always plenty for them to do. As these sturdy sons grew up and married, the father parceled to each a share of the wilderness. It was theirs for the clearing. And this instead of one there became several Kemp farms in Mad River tp. Today some of them are in alien hands, but enough of the original acres are still in the family name to keep intact, as Ludwick and Lewis Kemp willed it, an unbroken title to them.

            Out from some part of this old tract have gone soldiers to serve the nation in a time of stress; teacher and merchants and medical men to serve it in time of peace; farmers to cultivate other acres in other parts of the world. But in no instance have they lost sight of the old home in Mad River tp. They form a remarkable family, these Kemps, and they are proud of the name. And those who know their family history realize that they have a right to be.