As it were
As it were
Today, most people in Columbus make their living providing some kind of service to other people, from medical to financial to commercial.
People working for the federal, state and local governments of central Ohio provide many services, as well.
That being said, a lot of people in central Ohio are still working at making things of one sort or another. About one worker in five is employed in manufacturing. It is this base of manufacturing that made Ohio and the states around it at one time the center of an industrial revolution that transformed America and the world.
How did all of that begin? How did Ohio become the center of industrial growth in 19th-century America? I suppose the answer is — by some very hard work.
Let’s begin at the beginning.
In 1797, Lucas Sullivant, a surveyor, was laying out tracts in the land between the Miami and Scioto rivers. Sullivant took his pay in land, and the land he liked best was at the forks of the Scioto and Olentangy rivers. An admirer of Benjamin Franklin, he called his town Franklinton. Eventually, the township and county would be called Franklin as well.
Most of the people originally living in Franklinton made their living by farming relatively small plots near the frontier village. A few people opened taverns and inns. But it would not be long before a few entrepreneurs began to try more elaborate businesses.
Lucas Sullivant could not survey and take his payment in land on the east bank of the Scioto. That land was not part of the Virginia Military District, where he was empowered to work. So that land stayed free of platted settlement — but not of entrepreneurial activity.
The people of Franklinton grew corn in the floodplains along the river. They beat the corn into cornmeal by pounding it or by running it through a hand mill. A mill that could do that for them was something to be desired.
In 1799, two years after the founding of Franklinton, Robert Ballentine set out to solve the problem. To build a mill on the west bank of the Scioto would need the permission — probably by payment — of Lucas Sullivant.
Not wishing to deal with all of that, Ballentine crossed the river and built a rather crude grinding mill where a creek called Lizard Run emptied into the Scioto. The creek is still there. Today it runs under Gay Street as it moves toward the river.
At about the same time, a man named Benjamin D. Rush opened another rather crude mill on the Scioto north of Franklinton.
The mills of Ballentine and Rush both failed within a year of their opening. They simply did not have enough business to survive. A horse-drawn mill soon followed these two early efforts, but it had also failed by 1805.
Eventually, other mills would succeed and acquire the business of Columbus and central Ohio farmers. At about the same time, a local resident named Benjamin White was looking to a different sort of venture. While Ballentine and Rush were coping with their mills, White opened a distillery.
As the original historian of Columbus, William T. Martin, put it in 1858: “There was also a small distillery erected near Ridgway’s Foundry, by one White, where the first rot gut whisky was distilled.” (The Ridgway Foundry was located along the river between Gay and Long streets.).
The same Benjamin White was the first appointed sheriff of Franklin County. Having soon discovered that it might not be appropriate to be sheriff and town distiller, White left political office and soon applied himself to his business. It was apparently rather successful.
This should not be too surprising. Frontier consumption of alcohol was astonishing. A local observer once calculated that the average consumption in central Ohio was one gallon of liquor per person per month. When one considers that the women and children of central Ohio were drinking very little of that, a good idea of the social behavior of adult males in the area is easily obtained.
It is only with the coming of the Ohio Canal and the National Road that industry in central Ohio really began to change. Foundries begun by the Ridgway family became the property of the Hayden family, whose founder, Peter Hayden, would later acquire some fame in the stock market and beyond.
The availability of cheap wood, coal and iron led to the development of various industries, including iron, steel and tool manufacture. The arrival of railroads soon saw development of carriage, ship and railcar manufacture as well across the state of Ohio.
In Columbus, one soon saw the rise of the buggy.
In the early days of the new town of Columbus, a man named Tunis Peters had founded a tannery along the ravine that led from downtown Columbus along Livingston Avenue to the Scioto River. Eventually, his son and grandsons founded companies that first made saddles and leather trunks and later, buggies — lots of buggies. By 1900, one of every five buggies made anywhere was made in Columbus and the Peters family’s Columbus Buggy Co. made most of them.
And they were not alone. The Kilbourne and Jacobs Co. made wheelbarrows and plows for much of America. The Union Fork and Hoe Co. made shovels and rakes. And companies like Jeffrey Manufacturing, Buckeye Steel and Federal Glass also contributed to the success of Columbus.
And that only brings us to 1900. We will leave the 20th and 21st centuries for another time.
Ed Lentz writes a history column for ThisWeek.