As it were

Foresight, grace made Gills a power couple


John Loriman Gill came into central Ohio after this area had been initially settled and the new capital city of Columbus had been established in 1812. So he was not part of that pioneering generation that blazed the trails, fought the early battles and eventually made this place their own.

John Gill came with the next generation of people who literally made a rural village into a thriving city. John Gill was one of the men who made that happen. But it is fair to say he could not have done all that he did without the help of a quite remarkable wife -- Mary Waters Gill.

A bit of their story is worth retelling.

Born in 1806, John Gill was orphaned at the age of 15 and drifted west to Ohio from the East. He ended up in Columbus in 1826 and opened a store to sell cast iron stoves. Columbus in 1826 was a village of less than 2,000 people and most of them could not afford an expensive imported stove. John Gill solved this problem by acquiring the Mary Ann Furnace near Newark, Ohio, and making stoves of his own. They sold quite well.

The true genius of John Gill lay in his ability to accurately foresee a "next big thing" in American life. Sitting in his store in Columbus, John Gill saw the virgin forest surrounding Columbus vanishing even as he watched. As the capital city grew, its population required fuel -- fuel for cooking, fuel for heating, and fuel for light. And the preferred fuel was wood. For that reason immense quantities of wood were harvested in the area. But that would not last forever. What would replace it?

To John Gill, the answer was coal. He brought the first load of Hocking Valley coal to Columbus. The heat, light and energy brought by the coal permitted new industries to form cheaply and efficiently. Columbus now had energy to spare.

From iron and energy, John Gill turned his attention to transportation. He acquired a strong financial interest in several Midwest railroads. Among his railroad innovations was the patent for a refrigerated railroad car. On the near west side of the city in the often-flooded area originally settled as part of frontier Franklinton, John Gill built a factory to make railroad cars. By the end of the Civil War, the Gill Car Works was employing more than 850 men.

Complementing the driving energy of John Loriman Gill was the grace and style of his wife -- Mary Waters Gill. She was described in some detail in the 1909 Centennial History of Columbus and Franklin County:

"Mrs. Gill was born in 1814 in North Eaton, Massachusetts, an hour's ride from Boston, where the beautiful old Colonial home -- in perfect preservation -- is still standing in its magnificent ancient garden with forest trees and pretty streams ... and brought with her as a bride of 1833 much of the refinement and culture new to this part of the country but to which she had been accustomed."

"Her home became the center of the intellectual life of the community. She was an accomplished musician and brought with her the first piano in Columbus. She was a woman of great refinement and culture, a French scholar, something of an artist and fond of all literary pursuits. She had a beautiful Christian character and was one of God's noblewomen. Educated at the celebrated boarding school of Madame Oliver at Braddocksfield, near Pittsburgh, one of the most noted schools in the country, she was a true aristocrat, patrician, graceful in manner, gentle and loved by all. She contributed largely with her own means to the building of the First Presbyterian Church on the corner of Third and State Streets [where the Hyatt on Capitol Square is today] and was instrumental in securing an organ for this church, the first to be placed in Columbus and a most extraordinary thing in those days."

Her son, Wilson Gill, later remembered, "Amid much opposition from various members, but encouraged by Dr. Hoge, [the minister of the church] she induced some of the ladies to assist her in getting up a festival to raise money to purchase an organ. She painted exquisitely in water colors and decorated many articles which were sold at this first fair. Columbus was not a very musical city. ... There was not an organ in the place, either church or private, and one of the elders and others opposed the getting of so ungodly an instrument."

But get it they did and there it stayed for many years.

While the enterprises of John Gill prospered, the influence of his wife was pervasive as well. The Centennial History noted that, "Mrs. Gill entertained on an elaborate scale which even at this time would seem magnificent. Her hospitality was noted and influential people of the country and many foreign visitors were guests in her home."

John Gill died in 1895. Mary Waters Gill survived him and died on Christmas Day in 1905. Both are buried in Green Lawn Cemetery.

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