As it were

City's early days had character

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Columbus in some sense has always been a city possessed of a certain warm, comfortable openness. Perhaps this was even more the case when the town was young and most of

its early residents were plain-speaking frontier folk. Founded on the High Banks opposite frontier Franklinton at the forks of the Scioto and Olentangy rivers in 1812, Columbus grew very slowly at first.

Early settler Joel Buttles arrived from nearby Worthington and recalled his first winter in the woods that covered the ridge where the new town was to be built. "When I first built my house, in which I lived for some years, it was difficult, after the house was finished, to get the large trees around it cut down without falling on and injuring it. It was a forest all about it, and the country almost in a state of nature. The winter after I came to Columbus (1813-14), the deer came into what is now, and was then intended to be, the public square, to browse on the tops of the trees, which had been felled for clearing. The town, although located as the permanent seat of government, and the plan laid out by an agent of the state, was looked upon with little regard and slight expectation."

But if the town was a small village of only a few hundred people, it was a friendly place. Betsy Green Deshler arrived from Easton, Pa., with her husband, David, in 1817. The Deshlers paid the surprisingly large sum of $1,000 for a town lot. They felt in time it might be worth the money they paid for it. It was on the north side of Broad Street just a bit west of High.

Betsy wrote to her parents about her new home. "I have very good neighbors. People here are remarkably kind to strangers. Several of the neighbor women have told me to come and get any kind of vegetables out of their gardens. There is a little boy who brings me cream every morning for breakfast. ... Our house is getting along very well. ... All the dry boards made use of here are kiln-dried, as no board yard is kept here."

In a letter written a few months later, she continued to be impressed. "We have a very neat house, and furniture good and plain, with a handsome green yard before the door, and planted with trees, rosebushes, currant bushes, raspberry bushes or vines, morning glories, and I know not what all."

Noting all of this friendliness, it is still fair to say that the town had its share of rough edges. In 1826, more than a decade after the borough of Columbus had been established in 1816, the Ohio State Journal was appalled by the behavior of the young boys of Columbus and called attention to "the crowds of youth who nightly infest our streets with riot and din, accompanied with most shocking profanity. ... On visiting the streets in the morning, you witness manifestations of the most wanton and mischievous acts. Barrels, boxes and lumber are removed from their places; fences thrown across the street; doors obstructed, etc." All of this was blamed on a lack of schools.

A few years later in 1833, a letter sent to the same paper deplored what was referred to as "juvenile profanity and inebriety." "I do not mean ... that religion, morality or education are wholly neglected. On the contrary, piety and morality seem to abound, and great efforts are made by many to educate their children."

And the children were not the only mischief makers.

In 1833, a young arrival named Isaac Appleton Jewett wrote back to Boston with his impressions. "The wine parties have been very numerous during the winter."

Referring to the members of the Ohio General Assembly then meeting in the town, Jewett seemed less than impressed. "As to their morals, they do not invariably furnish the purest models of propriety. Nay, it is a fact that they grossly violate in the evening and livelong night the very laws which they were enacting during the day."

Not all of the disorder was caused by visitors and the younger set.

A later history of Columbus reported, "At one of the corners of West Broad and Front streets, one of the curious characters of the town kept a place at which fights and brawls were a daily occurrence. Having concluded to put a sign up for his 'tavern,' the proprietor of this place one day asked a prominent citizen what device he would suggest for it. The reply was: 'A black eye on one side and a red one on the other.' "

The same history noted, "a certain character known as Black Hawk, who was the terror of the town. Among the associates of this person was a certain Ben Langer, who was a remarkable thrower of stones."

Columbus in those days was apparently a friendly place -- but not always a quiet one.

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

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