|Messenger photo by Linda Dillman|
The blue-gray sandstone coursing through the veins of the land around and under the northwestern tip of Fairfield County once drew craftsmen of German decent to Bloom Township to sculpt the rock into architectural accents.
Known as freestone, the even-grained material was quarried in a town known in the early 1800s as Centerville, which was laid out by Frederick Baugher in 1814 on a section of former Congressional land. Baugher dedicated land tracts for public use such as a city hall, market, churches, and schools. Land set aside for the hall and market was not developed, but turned into a public square.
Solomon Baugher added to the size of the village before little Centerville was renamed Lithopolis in 1836.
Lithopolis: "City of Stone"
The Centerville name was previously claimed by another Ohio town. In order to avoid confusion, residents, on the advice of Dr. William Awl, were motivated to name their prospering village for the Greek word for "City of Stone," due to the Leyendecker quarry located in a nearby ravine.
Freestone, the only layer of sandstone worked in the quarry, was sawed on site, before the operation’s mill was closed, and stone hauled by wagon to Canal Winchester before it was shipped to Columbus. The sandstone was used in the construction of window sills, caps, and steps and employed extensively throughout the Wagnalls Memorial.
Graves in an old cemetery were marked with freestone before the quarry eventually ceased operations due to a combination of factors, including stripping of resources, market conditions, and a lack of shipping facilities. According to historian Jo Riegel, the last stone was excavated from the quarry around 1961.
Freshwater springs were once plentiful throughout the undeveloped countryside before many were drained to facilitate cultivation or destroyed by deforestation. Two to three were reputed to be magnetic. At one time, more than a half-dozen industries were in operation, including a successful tannery, flour mill, the D. R. Rockey and Son pump factory, potter Jacob Mason, and three hotels- the Elkhorn Tavern, Buckeye House, and the Joy House.
War of 1812 veteran Col. James Hite moved to Lithopolis in 1826 and operated the tavern, which was popular with stagecoach passengers and located at the corner of Columbus and Delaware streets. The complex also included large stables for Hite’s horses, guests, and the stagecoach line.
In 1840, presidential candidate and Hite’s old Army buddy William Henry Harrison eschewed the Neil House in Columbus for a stay at the Elkhorn during a campaign stop in central Ohio. The stables burned down in 1890 and, over the years, the hotel has served as a pool hall, grocery, and ice cream parlor.
In its heyday, five dry goods stores once vied for downtown business. In a "History of Lithopolis," written by A. Crumley in the early 1900s, the author said, "It (Lithopolis) was the dry goods emporium for a large region. Israel Gregg’s store, the greatest in the country, was known and patronized from far and near. Lewis Huber kept store in the Leyendecker building, owned a large farm, slaughtered hogs, did a pork packing business."
Another early settler was Dr. Ervin L. Miner, who moved to the town in 1825 and was a member of the first village council. He was one of the first doctors in Ohio, helped establish the state’s first medical association, and spent 45 years administering to the health and welfare of the community.
Location a key
Lithopolis’ central location between Columbus and Lancaster made it an ideal stopping point for people traveling via horse and buggy or stagecoach between the two cities and businesses were attracted to the village.
"William Sorrells was an Indian trader and fur dealer, annually going with a party of men as far west as the Rocky Mountains in quest of furs, returning with cargoes of bear, deer, wild cat, fox and others," reported Crumley. "He built the old still house building for a store room and dressed his furs preparatory for the New York market."
In a local history written by Riegel, it was noted that merchants, along with saloon and hotel owners, thrived in the burgeoning economy of the early and middle 1800s and it was not until the Ohio canal system passed up Lithopolis in favor of a route through Canal Winchester-continuing up to Lockbourne-and the start of the Civil War, did the prosperity of the past start to wane and change the economic climate of Lithopolis.
The village was also home to hatter Samuel Kramer, who not only covered heads with silk, fur, and straw, but also cut hair and beards as the town’s first public barber; and native son Adam Wagnalls, the co-founder of the Funk and Wagnalls Publishing Company. He married Hester Anna Willis, who was also born in Lithopolis, and the couple had one daughter, Mabel, who was born in Kansas City.
Following her mother’s death in 1914, Mabel and her husband, Richard Jones, laid the foundation for a lasting memorial to Hester, whose dream it was to do something for her birthplace, by creating Wagnalls Memorial. It opened in 1925 with a library and community center. Two years later, and influenced by their introduction to Esperanto, the Jones’ endowed a school for elementary students, with adult classes conducted at the Memorial.
Esperanto is an international language created by Dr. L.L. Zamenhoff in 1887 as an easily-learned, universal second language.
Cemetery, gravity railroad
In 1830, the village cemetery was established.
"The Lithopolis Cemetery, on a commanding hill, with its stately evergreens, red sandy soil, well cared for by the board of trustees, is a most beautiful place and a fitting home for the dead," wrote Crumley in his recollection of village history.
Amusement park roller coasters of today are designed around the principle of a gravity-based system, which Lithopolis teacher and inventor, Prof. James Wilson, used in 1905 to patent and construct a short-line prototype railroad from the top to the bottom of the hill on South Street.
In a gravity railroad design, cars carrying passengers are hauled up a slope and then coast down powered only by gravity. Speed is controlled by a braking system installed on a train car and Wilson hoped to initially connect Lithopolis to Canal Winchester via the pole and cable system and then eventually link to Columbus and Lancaster.
The enterprise only made it as far as the two-block-long experiment and no further. Like many other forms of transportation, such as the short-lived Interurban system, the rising interest and availability of automobiles brought an end to ideas like Wilson’s.
Lithopolis is now in a period of growth, with new residential and commercial developments on the drawing board and in construction. Much as it has done in the past, downtown businesses continue to attract visitors from outside the local community and the creation of an annual Honeyfest in 2007 draws new attention to the village.