As it were

A Statehouse with a lumber-yard view

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COURTESY COLUMBUS METROPOLITAN LIBRARY
Abel Hildreth

If you had been standing at the southeast corner of the Statehouse yard, at Third and State Streets, 150 years ago, you probably would have been a bit surprised at what you saw.

The Statehouse in 1863 was the center of a city of 18,000 people in the midst of a war that was not going as well as had been expected. Here -- in the heart of the capital city and less than half a block from the Statehouse, at the corner of Third Street and Chapel Alley -- was the Hildreth Lumber Yard.

To be sure it was a nice lumber yard. The Hildreth yard was well organized and well maintained.

But it was still a lumber yard -- immediately adjacent to some of the nicest houses and most expensive real estate in central Ohio.

How exactly was this possible?

It was possible for two reasons. First, in 1863 there were no zoning codes so people could build pretty much what they wanted to build on their property. Second, the yard was a tribute to the perseverance and energy of the remarkable man who built it. Abel Hildreth, like many of the men of his generation, was simply a man who was bound and determined to succeed. After many trials and more than a few failures, he did just that.

His story is an affirmation of what is best about America and its people and is well worth retelling.

Abel Hildreth was born in Bangor, Maine, on Jan. 15, 1819.

According to one account his parents' family had been there for quite some time, "the emigration to America in both families being then several generations remote." He spent the first seven years of his life on a farm near Bangor. Then his father, Simeon Hildreth, moved back to Bangor and opened a cooper shop. Abel attended local schools but spent most of his time helping his father in the shop.

In 1834, at the age of 15, Abel Hildreth opened and operated a general store. But business was not good and got worse in the economic depression that gripped the country in the late 1830s.

In 1838, Simeon Hildreth with his wife and Abel and two more of his children left Maine forever. They joined an ever increasing number of people moving west to make their fortune in the Ohio country.

Arriving in Granville, Ohio, they began to look for farm sites and eventually found one of about 60 acres near Alexandria. For the next nine years, Abel Hildreth worked on the farm with his family. Then, in 1847, at the age of 28, he decided to strike out on his own.

He rented a "flouring mill" near Newark. Having some success as a miller, he built a mill of his own near the Ohio Canal north of Newark.

Taking a partner he did quite well for a time. But a drop in the price of wheat and a contrary partner led him to sell out and move to Columbus in 1852.

Two years earlier he had married Elizabeth Williams of Columbus and perhaps the move here was made in part to be closer to her family. In any case, Hildreth was unable to find significant employment in Columbus and in 1853 moved to Somerset, Ohio, where he operated a successful flour mill for two years.

In 1855, he sold out and bought a Perry County farm with a sawmill on the property. He finally had found the business that would bring him some economic success. Over the next few years he acquired two other sawmills in Athens County. In 1859, he sold two of the mills, retained the equipment of the third and came back to Franklin County.

He set up a hardwood sawmill in Jackson Township and came to Columbus to find a place to sell his wood. He first set up a lumberyard on High Street and soon added sawed soft wood, like pine, to his stock.

In 1862, he bought a lot at the corner of Third Street and Chapel Alley. Across the alley to the south was the Presbyterian Church. To his immediate north were some buildings along State Street at Third.

But there was nothing on the lot he bought. The reason why was simple. Early in the city's history, the southeast corner of State and Third had been a pond. After it was drained, the lots along State Street were dry enough to sell. But the back part of the lot was still a bit on the wet side.

Nevertheless, it seemed to Abel Hildreth to be an ideal place for a lumber yard. And it was. In 1864, Hildreth partnered with Joseph Martin and the Hildreth-Martin lumber yard stayed at that site for next several decades.

Abel Hildreth and his wife later spent their summer along the Indian River in Florida at a place they came to call Indianola. Abel Hildreth died on July 2, 1907 and is buried in Green Lawn Cemetery.

It was a hard life but a successful one.

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

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