Festival honors the memory of philanthropist John T. Wilson –
Story and photos by Patricia Beech –
A village of white muslin canopies greeted visitors to the annual Heritage Days Festival at the John T. Wilson homestead in Tranquility last weekend.
Members of the Grassy Run Historical Arts Committee set up their 18th century living history encampment on the lawn surrounding the historical Bed and Breakfast for two days of educational fun and games.
Visitors heard storytellers and saw demonstrations in blacksmithing, rope-making, yarn spinning, weaving, quilting, open-fire cooking, music, colonial instruments, writing with a quill pen, and much more.
“The Grassy Run people are the key to what we do here,” says Ralph Alexander, owner and renovator of the historical home. “This festival is like their season finale, and they really work hard to present these different old-time crafts in an authentic and meaningful way.”
The history of Serpent Mound and a Native American artifact display were also among the numerous educational programs focused on Adams County’s pioneer history.
This year, the first of the festival’s two days was reserved for visiting students from the Adams County Christian School and the North Adams Elementary second grade classes.
Paige Young of Winchester attended the event with her young son, Reese.
“He wanted to come because every time we drive past the place I tell him about its history, so he’s really excited to be here.”
“My favorite thing is looking at all the cool stuff they make,” said Reese, who was also looking forward to purchasing a rock from one of the festival’s artifact vendors.
Carol Carman, whose fifth-grade son Josh attended the event Friday with students from the Adams County Christian School, said her son wanted to come back “to see things a little more closely”.
“This festival is such a good way to introduce kids to history,” she said. “It’s amazing what kids are exposed to here.”
Several speakers were also featured throughout the day: Rita Campbell spoke about the one-room schools in Scott Township; a standing-room only crowd gathered in the property’s barn to hear Roy Gabbert Jr. talk about the life of Joseph Darlinton; Sheriff Kimmy Rogers spoke about law enforcement; Bill Wickerham spoke about wildlife in the 1800’s, and John Martin gave a presentation titled “The Drinking Gourd.”
Angelina Newman, a member of the Tranquility Heritage Association, the organization sponsoring the festival, said the event serves a unique function in the Adams County community.
“It’s important to keep history alive for kids and for adults that aren’t familiar with this area,” she said. “The history re-enactments, the speakers, and the house itself all contribute to that experience.”
Also present for the festival was author and Adams County native, Linda Lee Greene.
“I have a long tradition and deep ties in this county,” she said. “I was born in Peebles and spent most of my childhood there, as did my parents and my grandparents.”
The settings of Greene’s books are all located in the Peebles area “because that’s where my roots are” she says. Greene, who now lives in Columbus, Ohio, signed copies of her books: “Guardians and Other Angels”, “Rooster Tale”, and “Cradle of the Serpent.”.
Throughout the two-day festival students from Southern State Community College led visitors on guided tours through the Bed and Breakfast which is on the National Registry of Historical Places.
The tour guides provided a narrative of the life and contributions of John T. Wilson and explained the steps involved in renovating the property which had fallen into almost irreversible disrepair.
“When I saw this home for the first time in 2006 it was in bad shape,” says Alexander.
“The next day I brought a carpentry instructor to look at it and he just shook his head and said, ‘you’re crazy if you do it.'”
Eleven years later, Alexander says he has no regrets.
“We’ve spent several thousand dollars and 7,000 hours restoring the home, and it’s just a good feeling to see the people come out and take an active interest in the festival and the Bed and Breakfast,” he says. “This place has a tremendous energy, that’s why I’m so committed to seeing that it continues.”
Alexander says the late local historian, Stephen Kelley, who wrote the Lore, Legends, and Landmarks column for The People’s Defender, was instrumental in helping him develop his knowledge of the home’s history and its original owner. Kelley was responsible for putting the home on the National Registry of Historical Places in 1976.
“He became a great friend to us,” says Alexander. “He and I did a lot of research on the property, and he followed our progress through the whole restoration.” The Alexander’s named the home’s most significant historical room, the Stephen R. Kelley Room, in his memory.
The Alexanders were required to pay close attention to details during the restoration process. Their efforts ensured that everything from the wood shake roof tiles, to the limestone-based brick mortar, and the 182 panes of gravity-warped glass in the windows were all authentic representations of the time period when the house was first constructed.
Sitting atop a prominent bluff in Tranquility, the fully restored home is comprised of the original log cabin built in 1832 and the two-story brick home which was begun in 1840 and completed in 1844.
The restoration is more than just passing nod to the memory of Adams County’s most famous philanthropist, it is a complement to the vital legacy he left behind.
Wilson was a fiery abolitionist who used his home as a station on the Underground Railroad. He helped countless African Americans gain their freedom by hiding them in a secret stairwell hidden behind a wall in his dining room. He served as a Captain in the Union Army during the Civil War and led Company E of the 70th Volunteer Ohio Infantry in the battle of Shiloh. His only son, Spencer, enlisted in the Union Army and died in Louisville on March 4, 1862.
Wilson was elected to the Ohio State Senate and served as a representative in the U.S. Congress from 1866-1872. He provided the funds to build the Adams County Children’s Home in West Union and willed both an endowment and farmland to the home. He owned and deeded Serpent Mound to the Peabody Museum of Harvard University in 1886. When he died in 1891, his net worth was more than $550,000 or around $16 million in today’s dollars. He willed his entire fortune to charity, reserving $5,000 to erect a Civil War Soldier’s Monument at the Children’s Home.