For most of the 19th century and well into the 20th, the Neil family was a significant influence on the development and prosperity of Columbus and central Ohio.
Several generations of children and in-laws included politicians, soldiers, social reformers and civic leaders. Most of these people – important in their own right – drew inspiration and direction from the example of the founding family of William and Hannah Neil.
William Neil was born in Clark County, Kentucky, in 1788. He came north, as a lot of young men did in those days, to make his fortune in the new frontier of the Northwest Territory.
He settled for a time in a log house in Urbana with his wife and tried farming and other enterprises.
William Neil had made some friends in Columbus and was asked to come to the village and become the clerk for the newly formed Franklin Bank. He did so in 1818 and took up what would become his permanent residence.
Quickly tiring of banking, Neil went into partnership with Adam Zinn and Columbus Mayor Jarvis Pike to open a stagecoach line.
But he realized he’d never make much money with small independent stagecoach lines irregularly serving single towns. So he began, by means both gentle and not-so-gentle, to acquire and combine stagecoach lines into a large business.
By 1840, if someone boarded a coach to head north of the Ohio River from what is now Wheeling, West Virginia, that person was riding a coach owned, at least in part, by William Neil.
Neil admired a 300-acre farm north of Columbus, bordered on the east by High Street and on the west by the Olentangy River. It is now the campus of Ohio State University. He acquired it in 1828 and lived there, as well as in a townhouse in Columbus.
He also was active in the politics of the new capital city. A later account describes the local political scene of 200 years ago:
“In 1819-1820 politics ran pretty high in Franklin County, and some sectional spirit was manifested by parties arrayed against each other, one known as the Kentucky party, headed by Lucas Sullivant, the Neils, McDowells, Colonel Doherty, Colonel Tom Flournoy, and others, against the Yankee party, or New Englanders, led by the Parishes, Gustavus Swan and others.
“The contest was upon the election of a representative to the legislature. John Adair McDowell, the brother-in-law of Mr. Sullivant, was the candidate of the first party, and Orris Parish, a lawyer, was the favorite of the other. The contest was warm and wordy, with many handbills and broadsides, and much newspaper literature, many threats, some challenges, but no bloodshed.
“McDowell was elected and to celebrate the victory, Mr. William Neil gave a famous supper, long talked about, in which Kentucky hoe cake and Virginia johnny cake were conspicuous, and no doubt, as was the custom in those days, moistened with a due allowance of ‘old rye.’ ”
While he was building a stagecoach empire, Neil left his wife, Hannah, in charge of a tavern he owned across the street from the Statehouse.
In 1839, the tavern was replaced by the first of what would become three Neil House hotels on the site. The last Neil House was built in 1924 and closed in 1980.
Many years later, granddaughter Lucy Neil Williams recalled Hannah Neil:
“I remember seeing my grandmother giving away every dress, but the one black silk in the wardrobe, and of protesting with her one cold day, for even taking off a heavy quilted shirt which she had on and parting with her featherbed to give to some poor woman. Very often in the fall she would lay in large supplies of provisions, and have pork and sausages and hams packed in barrels, to distribute among the poor in winter.
“Her old horse, ‘Billy,’ was much the most at home among the ‘byways and hedges,’ and always wanted to turn down an alley where he spent so much time, whilst my dear grandmother, like a ministering angel, was in the home of some poor person, always cheerful and making everyone happy around her ...
“She died March 13, 1868, of pneumonia. As the funeral procession left the church, I remember the crowds of poor people who, with tear-stained faces, and lining the streets on either side (since the church could not hold them all), had come to pay the last tribute of love and respect to one who had been a dear and true friend to them.
“We cannot but feel that rich indeed has been the reward of one who fulfilled so completely her Master’s bidding and followed so closely in the footsteps of her Savior.”
William Neil, the Old Stage King, died two years later in 1870.
William and Hannah Neil are buried in Green Lawn Cemetery.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.