As it were

The benefits of a very big ditch

By ED LENTZ
Tuesday August 14, 2012 1:06 PM

There is something at once rather whimsical as well as rather telling in the story of one Mr. Reuben Dove. He is a man whose family came to Ohio for a new start in a new state. And having wrested a homestead from the forest, Reuben Dove turned around one day to find a large group of men digging a very big ditch across his farm. And when he asked them who employed them to do such a thing, they cheerfully responded that the project was being paid for by the State of Ohio.

Mr. Dove – as one might imagine – was not amused.

But first a little background is in order. Reuben’s father, Henry Dove had come to Ohio in 1811. At the time, Ohio had been a state for only eight years and the state had yet to endure the perils of the War of 1812. Although the promise of good land at a low price was attractive, it took a special sort of person to hazard one’s future on the edge of the frontier. Henry Dove was that sort of person.

His grant of 160 acres in what would soon become the northwest corner of Fairfield County was recorded by the Chillicothe Land Office on Oct. 1, 1811. Over the next several years, Henry Dove and his family cleared their land and made productive use of the topsoil that in most places was rich and black and several feet deep.

In 1821, Henry Dove divided his land between his two sons, Reuben and Jacob. Jacob would sell his portion to a man named John Coleman in 1824. Our story might have concluded with the Dove family happily farming in central Ohio. But as we have seen, the state of Ohio had another plan. To be fair, it is probably safe to conclude that Reuben Dove – like most Ohio-ans – knew that a canal might be coming. He did not expect to see it in his backyard.

The call for “internal improvements” by elected representatives of the people west of the Appalachians had been heard in the halls of Congress since the new nation had been formed after the American Revolution. The funding of roads and bridges and canals and river dredging by the federal government would open up vast new markets in the frontier west and lead America to a new prosperity. Americans living in the East often did not share the dream. They saw the new projects as a means to use their tax dollars to permit the growth of commercial competitors.

The wrangling over these public works would mean that the National Road (later US Route 40) would take 20 years from the time it began to be built in 1811 to reach Ohio’s capital in Columbus. And there the road would stop for several years. The continuing dispute over public works would also mean that only a few other projects would be undertaken. They did not include a canal for Ohio.

But the dream of canals to provide transport to places where streams were not navigable did not die. The success of the Erie Canal connecting the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes proved that an immense undertaking of this kind could be undertaken by a single state. And so – the thinking went – if New York can do this, why can’t Ohio do it as well?

So Ohio did.

Originally the state planned to build only one canal from Portsmouth to Sandusky Bay through the middle of the state. When that proved to be unfeasible, the whole idea might have been dropped. But Ohioans generally liked the idea and instead went forward with the construction of two canals: the Miami and Erie in western Ohio and the Ohio and Erie in the east. Columbus, the new state capital would be linked to the main line of the Ohio and Erie by a lengthy and somewhat circuitous Feeder Canal.

And that brings us back to Reuben Dove and his discovery that the canal would pass through his property. His immediate reaction was to contemplate a lawsuit against the state. But the builders of the canal convinced him that he would be better off living next to the new waterway.

And in an interesting example of taking a lemon and making lemonade, Reuben Dove decided to not simply sit idly by as the canal went through. On Nov. 5, 1828, Reuben Dove and his neighbor John Coleman recorded the first plat for the town of Winchester in Violet Township in Fairfield County, Ohio. It would by no means be the last. The town was named for the former home of the Dove family in Winchester, Va.

The first canal boat came to town in 1831. And from that point on the combination of agriculture, commerce and readily available cheap transportation insured the growth and prosperity of the town. In 1841, the village received a post office of its own. Because there was already another Winchester post office, the name of the community was changed to Canal Winchester. In 1851, Canal Winchester was part of six sections of land annexed by nearby Franklin County and added to Madison Township. At that point the village had a population of about 350 people. Canal Winchester was recognized as an incorporated village in 1866. The arrival of a railroad three years later insured the continuing growth and prosperity of the town.

Today Canal Winchester is a city of more than 7,000 people and continues to be an example of economic success as well as simply a nice place to live.

Reuben Dove would probably be pleased that the ditch he initially feared did so much to insure the prosperity of central Ohio.

Local historian Ed Lentz writes the As it were column for ThisWeek.

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