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Some Dayton Saints and Prophets
Thomas Morrison



      NO face is freer from the mists that gather with the years than that of Thomas Morrison.  He was an aged man when I first knew him, but his personality was so virile, his appearance so full of character, that it is no credit to my memory that I so easily recall him.  Snow-white hair framing a complexion of a vivid, healthy pink, small but keen blue eyes, a strong, straight nose, and a double chin, made up a most striking physiognomy.  His voice was naturally gruff, but I think he improved upon it sometimes for the purpose of scaring the children.  We were afraid of Mr. Morrison; not altogether that he was such a terrific old man, but rather that we felt our enterprises might not always bear investigation.  So, when a crowd of small mischief-makers heard a slow, shuffling step and a deep voice, which growled out, "Here! here! here! you young scamps! clear out o' here!" there was a general scattering, and the author of it, no doubt, went off chuckling to himself at the sensation he had made.

      There was ground enough for apprehension, if we had been up to mischief, for whoever the offender might be, or wherever he belonged, Mr. Morrison would give the case his personal attention, and the culprit was apt to wish he had never been born, or at least to regret that he had been born in that neighborhood.  Once, a boy (who shall be nameless) thought it would be a fine thing to climb up on the roof of an untenanted house, pull loose bricks out of the chimney and throw them down.  Mr. Morrison discovered and hailed him.

      "Hi! you rascal, come down out o' that; I want you !”

      The boy, perhaps with remembered experiences to give wings to his flight, took to his heels, and Mr. Morrison after him.  Take notice that the house did not belong to Mr. Morrison, neither did the boy, but this was a case which needed regulating, and he was not a man to turn his back on an obvious duty. So up to the roof climbed Mr. Morrison, and down upon the other side went the boy; on a dead run up the street, pursuer and pursued; to the boy's own home, into a bedroom where his mother sat sewing, where, with a despairing shriek for mercy, the boy dived under the bed.  This was a turn of affairs to have disconcerted a less determined man, but did not for one moment check the course of justice. Without ado, Mr. Morrison hauled the culprit out by the leg, and then and there, in the presence of the astonished parent, spanked him soundly.

      This summary and impartial justice was administered whenever occasion seemed to require it.  In these degenerate days, when a boy breaks windows or torments a cat, it is nobody's business. In 1860, if a boy had such plans to carry out, he kept well and wisely out of Mr. Morrison's way.  Everybody's business is said to be nobody's business, but "nobody's business” was always Mr. Morrison's business. This self-constituted regulator, administrator, dictator for the entire neighborhood, was better than a whole constabulary force for keeping order.  Horses might not be hitched to trees; dogs might not howl at night; boys might not carry off barrels for bonfires within Mr. Morrison's jurisdiction.  He is said to have passed the last few years of his life in a state of bewildered surprise that he could not continue to make everybody do as he liked.

      For fear the impression will obtain that Mr. Morrison was an autocratic ogre, I must hasten to record other things I remember of him.  Once, seeing some little children playing barefooted in the snow, he marched the whole family to the store and fitted them out with shoes.  Practical, sensible charity was a pleasure to him.  During the flood of '66, some families in Riverdale (then McPhersontown) were imprisoned on the roofs of their homes by the rapidly rising river.  Mr. Morrison procured a boat, pushed out into the muddy torrent filled with wreckage of all kinds, reached the submerged homes, helped the people to embark, and brought them safely to shore.  He had an untenanted house on Ludlow street; this he threw open to the flood sufferers and kept them there, dry and warm and at his own expense, until they could return to their homes.  This was clearly "nobody's business."

      A carpenter and a good mechanic had a contract to build a house, but he was a victim of intemperate habits, and apt to disappoint his customers.  Feeling sure the man would do himself justice on the job if he could be kept away from whiskey, Mr. Morrison brought him to the house and boarded him, read him a temperance lecture and became security for him on the work.  I dare say the espionage was a trifle overdone, for Mr. Morrison was a zealot in temperance as well as in public order; but the fact was that the man fell from grace, left for parts unknown, and his benefactor had to finish the house.  This also was "nobody's business."

      One trait in Mr. Morrison's character, unusual even in those early days of simplicity and integrity, was a trusting faith in other people's honesty.  He would lend to everybody in perfect confidence that they would repay him.  One of his tenants, a stonemason, got in arrears with his rent to the amount of fifty dollars, and thereupon moved out.  Some time afterwards, hearing the man was in a tight place for want of money, Mr. Morrison said to him:

      "I hear you are hard up. Why didn't you come to me?"  The man referred to the money he already owed Mr. Morrison, and received this reply:

      "I'll help you out.  I believe you are an honest man, and will pay me when you can."  And help him he did to the tune of several hundred dollars and the loan of a piece of ground to be used for a marble yard.  It is hard to write down the truth just here, but that man was no better than the carpenter, and he, too, left the country, with no security for Mr. Morrison but a yard full of tombstones,---not a very marketable commodity.  These were on the lot on Ludlow Street for many years until Mr. Morrison finally got rid of them by distributing them as presents among his friends.

      I have referred to his views on temperance; they were intense, profound, and oft-repeated.  He had been known to read a young man a lecture on the perils of the glass in the presence of the bartender himself, and lost no opportunity to voice his sentiments upon any occasion where it might do good.  In his early days, the custom was to take a dose of whiskey and tansy bitters every morning to keep off the ague.  It probably needed no argument if the malarial air of the Miami Valley was in inverse ratio to the population---as is generally the case.  The fact that so many of the early settlers had three, and sometimes four wives, is accounted for by the fact that the women worked as hard as the men, and did not take the "bitters.  "However, Mr. Morrison found himself, at one time, when quite a young man, on a farm so far from the store that there was no whiskey to be had, and he felt the need of it keenly. Philosophizing, as was his custom, upon the appetite thus contracted, he made up his mind that if the stuff created in him such a longing, it certainly must be a bad thing, and should be given up.  A resolve to this effect is recorded in black and white and dated March, 1805: "So I put down my foot, and I said to myself, 'Whiskey, you and me is forever dissolved.' "  What a temperance lecture to pass on to the Twentieth Century!

      Another subject which gave Mr. Morrison constant and lively concern was the behavior of modern children.  They were all, he averred, undutiful and disrespectful, and what the world was coming to if they were not taught better by their parents, he did not know.  Young folks were extravagant, careless, and vain.  Why some of his nephews and grandsons had actually taken to wearing cuffs, and we all know that when a young man goes such lengths as that, no good will ever come from him.  So he lectured the girls about ribbons and the boys about cigars, and the old folks about their parental duties, while the world wagged on. Peace to his labors.  We need more of such censors---as brave, as zealous, as candid.

       Thus far I have said nothing of Mr. Morrison as a business man or a citizen, because these qualities did not come within my personal cognizance.  The privilege has been granted me of reading a manuscript auto biography, written in 1826, and the plain story of his life as deciphered from the yellow paper and cramped chirography will give the fairest estimate of the strong character and sterling integrity of this early citizen of Dayton.

      Thomas Morrison was born of Scotch-Irish parents, in Pennsylvania, near the Susquehanna River, on the 9th of August, 1792.  Three years later the family emigrated west and spent one winter in a log cabin where Allegheny City now is.  At this time our infant pioneer fell into the Ohio River, and was rescued by an older sister, who had repeatedly warned him against walking on the edge of the bank.  He is said to have declared that where the others walked he could walk! In the spring of 1796, when the ice broke up, the Morrisons came down the Ohio in a boat and stopped at various places along the river. They spent some days at Fort Washington, now Cincinnati, where John Morrison, an elder brother of Thomas, distinguished himself by carrying a howitzer up the river bank after it had proved too tough a job for three or four men together.  On the north bank of the Ohio, just inside the Indiana line, they found an unoccupied cabin, and took possession of it for a time.  Near this place was a camp of Indians under Blue Jacket, a famous chief and thief, who stole the Morrisons' saddle and threatened their lives.  Young Thomas played with the young Indian boys, and once was cut severely on the head with a hatchet thrown by one of them.

      Then the family moved into better society up on Mad River, in the vicinity of Dayton.  They passed through here the first time in 1805 on their way to the new home.  Not long thereafter both mother and father died, and the children were left to fight the battle of life alone.  In describing the facilities for living at that time, Mr. Morrison writes: "If you wanted deer meat, you got it; if you wanted bear meat, you got it; if you wanted wild goose, you got it;" as laconically as if these commodities could be ordered from the provision store, whereas the "getting" consisted in pursuing the game with gun and knife, through the dense forest, one's life in one's hands.  He also speaks of elk, wolves, panthers, wildcats, foxes, and porcupines in the woods around Dayton and plenty of fish in the rivers.

      There were three brothers in the Morrison family, and together they finished building a double log house; cleared five acres "smack and smooth," according to the old saying; they split rails, fenced the land in and planted it with corn.  When the corn was about four inches high the youngest brother concluded to see the world and try his fortune.  He had always wanted to be a millwright, and had spent the scanty leisure of his boyhood building mills and water-wheels in the creeks.  So, on the first of June, 1806, he bade farewell to the brothers and sisters and set out, with no money or schooling or good clothes, to make his way in the world.  They never met again as a family.

      When my honest historian admitted his lack of schooling he forgot, or was probably not aware of one valuable characteristic he possessed---that of asking questions.  This was so well known to his family that when a stranger came to the Morrisons' and was hospitably entertained, it was a source of mortification to the older brothers to see how persistently Thomas drained the guest of every drop of information he possessed.  “There's Tom asking questions again!" they would exclaim, impatiently, "Stop him, mother!"  If the mother was wise she did not stop the boy, for he was getting his education.

      There was not much work for millwrights, so, although Thomas learned the trade, he gradually dropped into farming, which occupied him for the next couple of years.  During this time the diary treats of the prevailing hard times which, it seems, were no novelty even in the early part of the century; the great eclipse of 1806, and a gradual discontent which pushed the writer on to better things.

      On the 26th of June, 1809, after a tramp of fourteen miles, Thomas Morrison arrived in Dayton, which was to be his future and final home.  He was dusty and footsore; ate his dinner at McCullum's tavern, and hearing that there was a half day's work to be had on the Compton farm four and a half miles south of town, shouldered his bundle and proceeded to go for that job.  He says: "I was glad when night came, for it was the toughest day I ever spent, but I did not think of backing out.  "This little incident gives us an insight into the determination and iron purpose of the man.

      Dayton, at this time, consisted of McCullum's tavern, a brick court-house on the corner of Main and Third, and two other small brick buildings, two frame houses, and about twenty-five log cabins.  Ludlow Street contained three log houses on the east side, and four on the west.  The best house in town was Landon's, which was just then being finished, and which gave Morrison his first work, under John Dodson, the contractor and builder.  Just when the millwright and farmer turned carpenter is left to the imagination, as the journal is defective by several leaves, but a builder Mr. Morrison remained to the end of his long and useful life.  The next work to be had was on the old Academy, a two-story (mark the distinction) building on St. Clair Street, between Second and Third.  He writes : "At that time I had the great privilege of going to school twenty-two days.  Then my boss got another job, and I was put to work. I got, in all, six months' schooling, by piece-meal and at night; never learned figures, only what I picked up myself afterwards, and only learned to write after I was married."

      The twenty-two days referred to were passed in the north room of the Newcom tavern, where a man by the name of Beck, if I read it right, kept a school.  The retrospect could not have been in all respects a pleasant one, for Mr. Morrison remarked some sixty years afterward, "I almost feel some of his licks yet"; (and two hickory switches always hung by the stove in convenient reach.  The "new education" had not then reached the Miami Valley).  The record of these interrupted attempts at education shows that Mr. Morrison pursued learning, as far as it was to be had, with the same energy that he did odd jobs and recreant boys. Nothing got away.

      From 1810 to 1820 the history deals principally with work in his own line.  He was one of the makers of Dayton in the fullest sense of the word.  We shall see how many of its walls went up under his supervision.  In the summer of 1810 he built a house and store for Horatio G. Phillips on the corner of Main and Second.  The store was brick, but the logs for the house were procured on the Edgar farm at twenty-five cents a tree for cutting and hauling.  The winter of 1812 was a stirring one for early Dayton. Not only rumors of war, but war itself, came to the valley.  Col. Richard M. Johnson's regiment camped here three weeks, just before they marched to the battle which was fought near the rapids of the Maumee River.  Thomas Morrison was employed to make tent-poles and cots for the soldiers, and afterwards to build a bridge across Mad River, when the wounded from the battle of Mississinewa were brought back to Dayton in wagons, with icicles of blood six inches long upon them.  It was a cold winter; a series of earthquakes and a brilliant comet disturbed people greatly.  The spring of that year the old frame Methodist Church was built under Morrison's supervision.

       In 1813 he built the frame house on Main Street, which is still standing, south of King's furniture store; in 1814, Judge Steele's residence, on the site of the present Grand Opera House.  Following the record of this last piece of work is another to this effect: "Judge Steele was one of the noblest of the noble.  Few such men are now living.  I venture to say there is not one to be found in Dayton that is his superior in his dealings with his fellow-men.  When you work for a man a great deal, that is a sure way to try his honesty.  "In 1815 Mr. Morrison built a house for Henry L. Brown's father; and helped build the Phillips House.  In 1816 he married, and built a house for himself on Ludlow Street, north of Fourth, where he lived many years; in 1818 a brick house for Joseph Peirce, and a frame dwelling for Edward Davies, both on the corners of Main and Fourth streets.  In 1821 he built a cotton factory east of the canal for Thomas Clegg, and in connection with this piece of work there was an incident so typical of both men that I must give it place.

      Some time before this Morrison had recorded in his diary "times is commenced to get bad," so we are not surprised to learn that being met one day on the street by Thomas Clegg, the latter said to him as a preliminary, "I am poor as the devil.  "The rest of thee conversation was to the effect that Clegg wanted a cotton factory built, but had no money, and payment would have to wait until he had made it out of the business.  This Morrison cheerfully consented to do; the factory was completed and business was flourishing.  One day when the two men met again, the debtor asked the creditor, "Do you want your money?" "Not yet; if you can use it to advantage in your factory," was the reply.  A year passed, and then Clegg went to Morrison and threatened to sue him.  "What for?" was the astonished question.  "Well, you wont take what's owing you any other way, I have to sue." So the debt was settled, and the historian remarked, "The days have gone by when a man is so anxious to pay his debts that he threatens to sue a man to make him take his money.  "They have indeed, Mr. Morrison!

      In 1822 four young men of Dayton concluded to try their luck in a trip down the river to the "low countries," as they were called.  So a boat was built by Morrison, and loaded with the following merchandise, mostly, also, his make: eighteen panel doors, grained mahogany; three hundred light of glass (window sash, we presume) ; eighteen cotton wheels, fifty pairs of cotton cards, a few sets of chairs, sixteen barrels of flour, three of whiskey, ("and I hope the Lord will forgive me that sin," he adds piously) ; three kegs of tobacco, and a thousand cigars.  On the 17th of November the four adventurers, Thomas Morrison, David Davis, Gorton Arnold, and James Carpenter, pushed off from the bank at the upper end of Main Street in the presence of about a hundred people who prophesied that Dayton would never see all of them again.  When you consider that they were bound for Jackson, Mississippi, through a trackless wilderness infested with Indians and wild animals, and on rivers yet innocent of the pilot craft, the foreboding does not seem amiss.  All three men were leaving wives, some of them little children, and winter was coming on.

      All went well as far as where Franklin now is; there the boat upset and the crew had to wade to shore up to their armpits in the cold water amidst blocks of ice, and carry their goods to dry land.

      There is a discouraging page right here in the story, as was most natural, following the above chilly experience.  Morrison owns up to lying awake nearly all night on the floor of a mill, where they had gone to dry their things by a big fire, asking himself whether he should give up the trip and go back home.  But the thought of his wife and children and that all his possessions were that boat-load of stuff, decided him to go on. So they shipped the cargo by land to Cincinnati at a dollar a hundred-weight, and went on down to the mouth of the Miami.  Two of them then walked to Cincinnati where they loaded up once more on a flat boat and poled down the river, meeting their companions at the mouth of the Miami where they lashed the two boats together for the trip south.

      The Ohio was "booming," the story says, and it reads like one of Cooper's novels to trace their passage through the flood and forest.  They landed now and then and camped on the bank, shooting game for food; they encountered Indians, who were sometimes friendly, sometimes not. The swollen river made bayous and lakes, into which the boats penetrated, and once they lost altogether the course of the main stream, and must be piloted back again by an Indian guide.  It was thus a trip of thirty-one days from Dayton to Jackson, Mississippi.

      Once at their destination, they built a small store to hold their goods, and while a part of the firm attended to this business the other built barns and saw-mills and bridges for the Jackson people.  The following July, having disposed of their goods and made a little money, the four young men started home.  About fifteen hundred dollars were coming to Morrison from his work and sales in Jackson, but when he attempted to collect it he discovered that the complaint, "hard times," was not limited to Dayton.

      I quote his own words: "I thought I would collect my money.  They all said I should have it when I wanted it, but I found them of a different opinion when I came after it.  I then began to sell notes, and out of fifteen hundred dollars worth I sold enough at a great sacrifice to get six hundred, and left the balance to be collected.  I never got any of it. At that day I thought everybody was honest, but I have found out different."

      The party then separated.  Two bought a horse and proceeded on their homeward journey by the arrangement known in early times as "ride and tie."  The latter part of the way Morrison "tramped it" for nineteen days, and arrived, one afternoon in late September, at the top of the Main Street hill, south of town, and looked down on the little cluster of log cabins within the sickle curve of the river---"home" to him, as it is still, though so changed, to many of us.  Here, under a tree on the Patterson farm, he changed his dusty, travel-worn clothes for new ones, so as to make the proper impression upon his friends.  "I found," he says, "my wife and babies well, thank God, and glad to see me after my long absence.  My wife had run me in debt only sixty dollars' worth in all that time.  She had worked hard, woven sheets and table linen, and sewed and wove a whole rag carpet, and put it down on the floor." Summing up the trip as a business venture, he says: "I would have been fifty dollars better off if I had laid down and slept for ten months and a half.”   We are not, therefore, surprised to find the same old entry in the journal a little later, "Times is getting harder and harder."

      In spite of hard times, in spite of lack of schooling, in spite of men who borrowed and did not pay, Mr. Morrison slowly and surely gained a competency, and added steadily to his property year by year.

      When I knew him he owned on the west side of Ludlow Street from the alley between Third and Fourth around to the middle of the square on Fourth Street; on the east side of Ludlow from the Presbyterian Church down to Fifth Street, besides a business house on Main, and a dwelling on Fourth.

      It is not as generally known as it should be, to what extent the city of Dayton is indebted to the Morrisons, father and son.  They were public-spirited citizens to the extent of being interested in the rational execution of all public works.  David Morrison was called the best constructive engineer in Ohio, and his advice and that of his father, were asked and followed, nine times out of ten, and the tenth besides.  The laying out of streets, the proper grades and crossings, the surveying of public lands were invariably referred to the Morrisons. They were decided in their opinion that the original plan of broad, straight streets should not be interfered with, and they defended that principle in Council, with the brave public spirit of determined men.

      The old man once said to a friend during the last few months he lived, "Time was when they couldn't so much as turn over an old log, anywhere 'round Dayton, without asking Toinmy Morrison how it ought to be done."

      Considering these things it seems strange that among all our streets named for early settlers we should have no Morrison Street, and stranger still, that having had one, as was the case up to about 1878, the Council should see fit to change the name to something else.

      The houses built by Thomas Morrison are fast disappearing.  His own dwelling having met with the various descending changes of fortune that old houses suffer, is now on the alley back of Raper's livery stable, a plain tenement of six rooms.  The double three-story brick which stood on the east side of Ludlow, near Fourth, has been recently demolished.  Its bricks and beams came out of the old Court House, which Mr. Morrison purchased and pulled in 1847.  He refused to push the walls over, saying it would break them all up, but had each brick removed carefully, cleaned (the daily newspaper said wiped with a silk pocket handkerchief), and piled up ready to use.  The floor beams of this house were of hewn walnut, fifteen inches through, and the thick walls kept out the heat of the hottest August day.  From the back third-story windows of this house the writer in 1863 watched the destruction of another of Mr. Morrison's buildings, the old Journal office, which was burned during the war riots of that year.

      One more legend of this remarkable old man. In the campaign of 1840, he made a solemn vow that if Harrison were elected he would go to Washington, climb up to the summit of the Capitol dome, and give three cheers for the successful candidate.  History proves beyond doubt that Harrison was elected; and we may be equally sure that any promise Thomas Morrison made was carried out to the letter (witness the shin-plaster record in "Early Dayton").  To the city of Washington he therefore went, and to the top of the Capitol he climbed in spite of the guards, injunctions and mounted police.  The authorities had gotten wind of it, and, not knowing the man they had to deal with, actually attempted to restrain him, with what success any one might guess who knew Thomas Morrison. He wrote afterwards that he "hollered" for Harrison, and we may believe he did.  The papers had long articles on the sensation, and dubbed him the "Buckeye Pilgrim."  He made friends of strangers, and they invited him to their homes, where, I venture to think, he became the entertainer, and they the entertained.

      One more journey Mr. Morrison made in later years was to the Pacific Coast, when the first railroad was completed.  He carried his observing mind everywhere and continued to ask questions, preach temperance, and hurrah for the President.  Letters were given him introducing him to General Grant, who was at that time in San Francisco; I do not know if they were delivered; if not, it was a pity—for Grant!

      Mr. Morrison married, first, Sarah Humphreville; second, Mrs. Downs.  He died in 1878, leaving four children surviving (out of ten), twenty-five grandchildren and ten great-grandchildren, and his descendants continue to "be fruitful, multiply and replenish the earth."

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