Into the Great Black Swamp

Grandpa’s funeral struck the first crack in my assumptions of his background. His obituary said he was born in Van Wert, Ohio. I stared at the entry. I thought he had told me he was born just northwest of Dayton, “on a farm where Wolf Creek originates.” Only after my dad’s funeral would I realize that farm must have been where Dad was born, instead. And when Grandpa had nodded, over there, maybe he didn’t actually mean the farm in immediate view on that road north of Brookville, but rather a farm somewhere on its far side.

Still, this was the first clue I had that Grandpa hadn’t originated in Montgomery County, but four counties to the north, in the heart of what had been the Great Black Swamp. By now, I had already lived a couple of years in another corner of the swamp’s former expanse – some of America’s richest farmland, once it was drained in the late 1800s. Settled nearly three-quarters of a century after the land around Dayton, this was a place long prone to malaria – and then, to an oil boom, like those of Oklahoma and Texas. When Grandpa was born, it was still newly developing country – much of it only a generation or so – rather than long settled.

But how did he begin there? To understand that requires uncovering something of his grandparents, which I explain in depth in earlier posts on this blog.

In brief, the lives of both of my grandpa and grandma’s paternal grandparents would have centered on distinctive religious communities – for the Hodsons, the Quakers, formally known as the Society of Friends as well as just Friends; for the Ehrstines, it was the Dunkers, or German Baptist Brethren, before their branch emerged as the Church of the Brethren. Other strands would include the Brethren Church and the Grace Brethren – but not the Church of the United Brethren in Christ (generally known simply as United Brethren) and the River Brethren, or Brethren in Christ, which also play significant roles in the family history. Again, you’ll find these detailed in earlier posts.

I knew none of this at the time of Grandpa’s funeral. We were simply homogenous Midwesterners, awash in the middle class of America. Only later would I see how the very practice of simplicity and humility was a distinctive tradition now obscured by its very essence. Unconsciously, I was mourning the loss that accompanied their assimilation – the blackout of two legacies of focused living that had spanned nearly two centuries on this continent.

Even before Grandpa’s funeral, the large family Bible – later re-enforced by Grandma’s notes – had provided a few more clues about the Hodsons. Grandpa’s parents were Joshua and Alice McSherry Hodson, and Joshua was the son of Pleasant and Eunice Osban Hodson. But that was as far as it went, and there were no locations – no hint, especially, of the Tar Heel generations.

Alice, meanwhile, was Joshua’s second wife. His first, Josephine Jones Hodson, had died of complications after the birth of their second son, Kyle. Only their first son, Samuel, survived.

Continue reading Into the Great Black Swamp


Marriage and children

Examining an online copy of the 1910 Census entry book, I chanced upon an unanticipated detail. As children, Grandpa and Grandma had lived on adjacent farms. They never told any of us that detail, as far as I know.

What now disclosed this was Edna Ehrstine’s name at the top of a page just over the enumeration of Joshua Hodson and his family. Knowing she would have been my Aunt Edna Binkley, I backed up a page, and sure enough, there was the rest of Henry Ehrstine’s household.

Since Henry and his wife Susie “bought the old home place” in 1907, as recorded in Grandma’s notes, and since Joshua rented the farms he worked, we can put their two households on a stretch of road just north of Brookville and west of Phillipsburg – in sight of other farms owned by Susie’s kin: the Rasors, Swanks, Michaels, Nicewongers (in their many variant spellings), and possibly Henry’s Danner and Hess kin as well.

Most of Henry and Susie’s ancestors had been pioneer arrivals nearly a century earlier, relocating Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, often by way of Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, or western Pennsylvania. Some of their lines likely lead back together to a few Swiss alpine villages.

The Ehrstine and Hodson farms would have been along the road where Grandpa had nodded once in the direction of the place “where Wolf Creek originates.” Maybe the farm he pointed out to me was simply the one where he had grown up, or maybe he’d been indicating further, to the one where my father was born. I was too young to be impressed, yet the memory somehow remained.

Not only did Grandpa marry the girl next door – or across the road, depending – but they must have attended the same one-room school, along with their siblings, and perhaps even worshiped in the same neighborhood church.

Continue reading Marriage and children

It wasn’t just any city, mind you

In declaring himself “Dayton’s leading Republican plumber,” Grandpa simultaneously claimed pride in his adopted community, his political party, and his new trade. True, he had lived in the city’s orb of influence ever since the family had moved down from Van Wert to Montgomery County. But resettling inside the city limits also meant new experiences, hopes, and horizons, and Dayton could boast a special identity.

At the time, the Gem City was benefiting from a handful of exceptional leaders. Long the home of inventors and tinkers – Dayton had already laid claim to having more patent holders per capita than anywhere else in the country – the city was now famed as the home of the Wright brothers, an economic legacy that would blossom through the sprawling Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. The brothers were sons of Bishop Milton Wright, who had served as pastor of what would become Euclid Avenue United Brethren church before heading the traditionalist faction in a split within the denomination – the same congregation, in its liberal incarnation, where Grandpa and Grandma were devoted members. Although the Wright brothers started out as bicycle makers before turning their attention to flying, another line of Dayton-made bicycles did prosper – Huffy, with its popular fat-tire bikes of my childhood.

More influential on the locale was John Henry Patterson, an idealistic and paternalistic manufacturer who turned a rudimentary invention by a Dayton tavern owner into a ubiquitous and indispensable retailing instrument. As the genius behind the National Cash Register Co., Patterson not only pioneered modern marketing and sales strategies but also improved working conditions for his employees, something that often earned him the loathing of other industrialists. Rather than settle for an ugly slum factory, the NCR complex in Dayton was a light-filled, tree-lined campus more akin to a college in appearance. Patterson’s ancestors had been founders of Lexington, Kentucky, but left for Ohio in protest when that state voted to allow slavery; some of his kin joined the Shaker community in nearby Lebanon, Ohio, while his parents moved to Rubicon Farm, a sprawling tract then just south of Dayton containing much of the land that would become the NCR compound.

After the Flood of 1913 devasted both the city and the Miami Valley, Patterson spearheaded the drive that would assure such catastrophe would never strike again. The result was the Miami Conservancy District, which straightened the conflux of rivers, built levees and raised bridges, and between 1919 and 1921 erected five large dry-basin dams that would retain flood waters for slower, safer release. The project also brought its young manager to prominence, a young engineer named Arthur Morgan, who would later apply the same principles to the construction of the federal Tennessee Valley Authority during the Great Depression before becoming president of nearby Antioch College.

Patterson also brought a young inventor to town who would add his own impact, Charles F. Kettering. Joining with another NCR manager, Edward Deeds, Kettering would redesign the electrical system of the automobile to allow it to be started without recourse to the unsafe and peevish ratchet, appropriately known as a crank. Their work become Dayton Electronics Laboratory Company, or DELCO, which would soon merge into General Motors Corp. and make Dayton GM’s largest center of operations outside of Detroit. Kettering, second only to Thomas Edison in the number of patents to his name, led GM’s team of scientists and engineers in Dayton to many useful inventions, including the refrigerator, no-knock gasoline, and a working Diesel engine. Eventually, five GM divisions operated in the city.

Already, the city had pioneered in a new way of municipal government, one based on a nonpartisan city manager rather than the mayor.

Continue reading It wasn’t just any city, mind you

A strip of Dayton postcards, back in the day  

This is my hometown, a decade or so before I showed up.

The public library. I got my first card here, before the structure was torn down and replaced.



Newcomb Tavern. You can still tour it, though it’s been moved to Carillon Park.


That’s John Henry PATTERSON, the patriarchal industrial pioneer who founded the National Cash Register Company, now NCR.



The epicenter of town, right at Third and Main streets.


My, times have changed!


I knew it well.


Next to the art institute. My grandpa was a member, but it was secret-secret.


What we would now call a veterans hospital.


Every city has to have a skyline, right? Like right out of Hollywood?