Grassy Run frontier group bring history to life at two-day event –
By Patricia Beech –
History came alive last weekend as the John T. Wilson Homestead in Tranquility played host to Heritage Days – a two-day event focused on preserving local history and allowing visitors to experience the hardships and ingenuity of early Ohio settlers living on the harsh frontiers of 19th century America.
The annual event features historical re-enactments by the frontier group Grassy Run Historical Arts Committee as well as a diverse group of speakers recounting local lore and history.
Among the featured speakers was West Union attorney Roy Gabbert, who took on the persona of Joseph Darlinton, the founder of Winchester.
Wearing judicial robes and a powdered wig, he addressed visitors gathered in the dim light of the homestead’s nearly 200-year-old barn.
Referencing a line from Stephen Vincent Benet’s novel, “The Devil and Daniel Webster”, he asks a young woman in the audience, “How stands the Union?”
“Rock-bottomed and copper-sheathed,” she replies in 19th century parlance.
It’s the kind of experience visitors have come to expect from this living-history festival.
“Seeing the portrayal of historical figures helps people have a better appreciation of what it was that early settlers were trying to build here in Adams County,” Gabbert says. “It’s a fun way to help young people understand our shared heritage – where we came from, why we’re here, what we remember – all of that goes toward making us a more united county.”
Helping young people develop a deeper understanding of history is the festival’s greatest appeal, according to George West, President of the Grassy Run Committee.
“Teaching young people is the main focus of our group,” West says. “Living history enactments allow children to see how people once lived and the hardships they faced, and it may also inspire them to become history re-enactors who help to keep their local heritage alive for others.”
West and the other Grassy Run Historical Arts Committee members set up an 18th-century encampment of white muslin tents on the lawn surrounding the historical Bed and Breakfast.
Visitors hear storytellers and see demonstrations in blacksmithing, rope-making, yarn spinning, weaving, quilting, open-fire cooking, music, colonial instruments, writing with a quill pen, and much more.
Kelly and Jason Stanball, along with their two children, Emma and Xavier, were first-time visitors to the festival.
“I love it, it’s very neat,” Kelley says as she watches her children make rope from twine.
“We’ve never experienced anything like this before,” she says. “It’s amazing to see how much life has changed from then to now. I hope it helps my children understand how privileged they are and to not take good things for granted.”
Ralph Alexander, the owner and renovator of the historical home, says the Grassy Run Committee members are critical to the festival’s success.
“They’re the key to what we do here,” says Alexander. “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.”
Throughout the weekend Alexander led visitors on guided tours through the historical Bed & Breakfast he and his wife Pat spent a dozen years renovating.
The tour provides a narrative of the life and contributions of John T. Wilson and explains 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 doesn’t regret his decision.
The Alexanders were required to pay close attention to details during the restoration process. Their efforts ensured that everything from the wood shakes covering the roof, to the limestone-based brick mortar, and the 182 panes of gravity-warped window glass 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.
Alexander credits the late local historian, Stephen Kelley, for helping him develop his knowledge of the home’s history and its original owner. Kelley was also 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. It was also the room out of which Wilson ran his general store business.
“If floors could talk, this floor would have a history to relate,” Alexander tells a group of visitors in the Kelley room. “What you’re standing on is the floor that 50 Civil War recruits stood on to be sworn into service, it’s the floor local people shopping for goods walked on. There’s more history in this floor than we can ever imagine.”
The home’s 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 later provided the funds to build the Adams County Children’s Home in West Union and willed both an endowment and farmland to the home.
“I can imagine him being moved by the poor little children who came into his store,” says Alexander. “So many of them were orphaned by the Civil War, and I think he had great compassion for them.”
Wilson was elected to the Ohio State Senate and served as a representative in the U.S. Congress from 1866-1872. 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 life-long Scottish housekeeper $400 a year for life, and reserved $5,000 to erect a Civil War Soldier’s Monument at the Childrens Home. The rest of his fortune he bequeathed to charity.
While Alexander clearly appreciates Wilson’s contributions to the people and history of Adams County, he also recognizes that the philanthropist was carving out a legacy he hoped wouldn’t be forgotten.
When the leaves are off the trees you can stand in the dining room and see John T. Wilson’s tombstone from here,” he says. “It’s the largest one in Tranquility Cemetery, and that, I’m sure, was purposely done.”