Although he never made Hamilton his home, none of the city’s great industrialists had as profound an impact on the character of the city than Peter Gibson Thomson, founder of the paper mill that went under a few different names in its history, but in my family, it was always called simply “the Champion.”
By the time Thomson began setting up shop in a cornfield along the west bank of the Great Miami River in 1893, the value of Kentucky labor was already highly regarded in Hamilton. In a few years, stores in Central Kentucky would advertise their cheap suitcases as “Hamiltons” and Kentucky train riders would ask for a ticket to the Champion. A former Champion physician wrote a book “Horse Sense and Humor in Kentucky” and quoted a Perry County native, “Down there we have a saying, you go from Harlan to Hazard to Hamilton to Hell!”
He also quoted Thomson as saying he would only hire mountain men. They had a strong work ethic, knew how to run a machine, and if it broke, they knew how to make the part to fix it. With resources scarce and families large back home, the migration to the Champion lasted more than four generations and Hamilton’s decidedly German demographic absorbed a new cultural heritage.
That is, Thomson was the man who put the ’tucky in Hamiltucky.
When John Reily arrived in Hamilton in 1803 as an agent of the owners of Rossville, then just a couple of cabins across the Great Miami River, the fort had been abandoned for eight years, but traces of it remained. A few of the original pickets were still embedded in the ground but most had been repurposed, though Reily would have been able to see a clear outline of its former boundaries as a scar on the land.
“The inhabitants of Hamilton, when Mr. Reily went there, were few in number, and composed chiefly of soldiers and other persons who had been attached to Wayne’s army, and had remained there when that army was disbanded at the close of the campaign,” writes John McBride, Hamilton’s first historian. “These persons lacking energy and enterprise, spoiled for pioneer work, by military camp life, and in many cases dissipated and immoral, were not the class of citizens best calculated to promote the rapid improvement of the place.”
John Reily, forty years old when he landed in Hamilton, had been a founding member of Cincinnati’s board of trustees and a clerk of courts in Hamilton County. He had come to the newly-formed Butler County to take up the clerk of court’s position here for the Court of Common Pleas, which organized the county into townships and set the date for the first elections at a meeting in May.
Somerville: Americana (not) at the Crossroads
A recent exchange with my colleague Greg Lynch prompted me to dig up this story. He was the photographer who worked with me back in June, 2010 to do the reporting. I made two or three trips to Somerville, and Greg did a great job with the photos. The portrait of the old-timer Chic Rumpler is one of my favorites ever (and we did a lot of good work together). The sad reason it came up was that Greg just went back there to do the story about the village finally shutting down and becoming a part of the township. I was especially saddened to learn that the grocery store recently burned down. Somerville reminded me a lot of Auburn, which we called Gandertown, back when I was growing up there, and Megan’s was a whole lot like Waltz’s, so the story brought back some memories when I was working on it. Read more about the beginning of the end for Somerville.
Local Barber Reflects on 50 Years Behind the Chair
People mark their lives, in part, by where they were when they heard about a certain historical event. Where were you when John F. Kennedy was assassinated? When the space shuttle Challenger blew up? When terrorists flew airliners into the World Trade Center? For Glenn Mills, 71, the answer is always the same: “I was right here behind this chair.” Read about Glen Mills here. Originally published June 2, 2013 in the Hamilton Journal News. Photo by Greg Lynch
A Little Bit of Soho on the Fifth Block
While high-profile downtown Hamilton projects like Artspace try to revitalize the urban landscape, Seldon and Nancy Brown are busily creating their own art space on the other side of the river. For eight years, Seldon has operated the Little Woodshop on Main in a storefront that over-looks the busy intersection of Main Street, Millville Avenue and Eaton Avenue. Three years ago, Nancy walked into the shop to get her grandmother’s rocking chair fixed, “and never left,” they are fond of saying. Read more about Seldon and Nancy and their nook of Main Street. Originally published May 19. 2013 in the Hamilton Journal-News. Photo by Greg Lynch:
Tom’s Cigar Store: 98 Years and History
AUGUST 24, 2015: The First Ward Cigar Store opened in 1917 and hasn’t been closed a day since. Not even Thanksgiving and Christmas. Not even during the worst blizzards this city has ever known. Sometimes it wasn’t open for the whole day, but it was always open every day. It was more than a business practice. It was a point of pride. It was on the sign. It ends this week. On Thursday Tom’s First Ward Cigar Store will not open as usual, and will never open again. At 10 a.m. Saturday, Doug Ross will auction off all of the fixtures and any remaining merchandise. “Things change,” said owner Joe Wright, “so we’ll close up, plywood the windows and move on down the road.” Read the history of Tom’s First Ward Cigar store at HEY! Hamilton! When I was growing up, it was said that if Tom’s didn’t have it, you didn’t need it. It was the go-to place for widgets of all kinds and I used to get tossed out of there for reading the magazines and not buying. It was a Hamilton institution, and it saddened me to write this story. But it wasn’t my first. Here is a 2013 story I wrote about The Working Man’s Store on Heaton Street when Paul Jewell decided to shut it down.
Wesley Wulzen’s World War I Adventure
The Butler County Historical Society’s treasure trove includes a tattered black scrapbook from World War I, compiled by Hamilton resident Lawrence B. Fritsch. The label says that Fritsch was a field artillery Sgt. Major, and the yellowed newspaper clippings that tell the stories of fellow Hamilton soldiers and their heroic actions overseas, including a first-person account of a six-day battle in France near the little town of Avacourt, published by the Hamilton Evening Journal on Nov. 8, 1918. Capt. Wesley G. Wulzen was in charge of Co. F, 148th Infantry, known as “the Cleveland Grays.” Read more …
Captain Wulzen later shows up in Hamilton History as a deputy sheriff and the first man on the scene when Francis Lloyd Russell murdered most of his family on Progress Avenue in 1925. You can read all about that event in my TWO-DOLLAR TERROR #8, “Massacre on Prospect Hill.”
George Altman, 95, has lived his entire life in Hamilton, except for the four years he spent in the U.S. Army, and for two and a half of those he lived in German prisoner of war camps. “I hated every minute of the Army,” he said. “I was 23 years old and already set in my ways. It’s good for a younger fellow, who they can mold a little bit. I didn’t care too much for that. There’s a lot of wasted time in there. You’d spend a lot of days not doing anything, actually.” This is an extended version of a story that was published in the Hamilton Journal-News on October 20, 2103, one of several stories fed to me by Amy and Ashley at Hyde’s Restaurant.
The Pie Judge
The editor giving me the assignment started to read the schedule aloud to find something for me to cover. I more or less snorted at him and told him not to bother, just let me go to the Butler County Fair without an agenda and let the story find me. I was barely 10 minutes there when I struck gold. A crowd gathered in the Activities Building where all the food stuff was displayed. I edged in to hear Diane Spillman putting on a pie show, then elbowed my way to the front. This is one of my favorite profiles and one of the stories I submitted to the Ohio Associated Press when it gave me the Feature Writer of the Year award in 2011. The Miamiam, an alumni magazine for Miami University, also reprinted it. Read “The Pie Judge”
Tina Osso Feeds the World
Also from the class of 2011, an in-depth profile of one of my heroes in the community. Tina Osso is an amazing person. I’ve never met anyone with more heart and soul. She’s an admitted hippie from way back, but she has done amazing work in Butler County and the surrounding areas by single-handedly taking on hunger and corporate waste. This is without a doubt one of the best stories from my long, long tenure at the Hamilton Journal-News. Originally published September 13, 2011. Photo by Nick Daggy.