Yellow Springs: 1883-1898
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Installment 4: 1883 to 1898

Photo Courtesy of Antiochiana

The American Hominy Flake Co. was located near Xenia Avenue and the railroad tracks during its brief time in the village. Downtown Dayton Street can be seen in the background of this photo, which was taken some time after Hominy closed.

The brief, and flaky, life of Hominy cereal company

It may be that Thanksgiving Day, 1890, marked the high point of the American Hominy Flake Company’s short-lived reign as producer of Snow Flake, the village’s most famous food export and perhaps the world’s first prepared breakfast cereal.

On that day, the Hominy Flake band performed an outdoor concert to celebrate the company’s award for a “superior” food item at the recent National Food Exposition held in Philadelphia, the Yellow Springs Review reported on Nov. 21, 1890. Company founder William Little had visited the exposition, bearing samples of Snow Flake cereal, manufactured in Yellow Springs.

In honor of the award, the Hominy Flake band performed the “Hominy Flake” Grand March, and, according to the article, H. Adams gave a trombone solo and the audience heard a Watson serenade the titled, perhaps appropriately, “Sweetly Dreaming.”

And while orders streamed in for the new cereal, the company’s success blazed in other ways as well. The Review said that “a new dynamo of 100-light power will soon be in use in the Hominy Flake works, and wires will be run into the new hotel for the purpose of furnishing light to the large number of summer visitors which we expect to entertain.”

After the company incorporated in June 1890, business took off like gangbusters. The Review reported only two months later that “the increasing business of the Hominy Flake company requires a more abundant supply of water for their mill and pipes are to be put down.” A month later, the newspaper stated, “The constant increase in the demand for Snow Flake Hominy has necessitated the purchase of a larger engine and boiler by the company, more than double the capacity of the one now in use.”

The American Hominy Flake Company, located at the current site of Peach’s Grill, 104 Xenia Avenue, rode the wave of a natural foods boom in the 1890s, according to local historical Don Hutslar, who said the flakes were probably not marketed at the time as breakfast food, but rather as a healthy snack.

An October 1890 Review article stated that since June the company had produced more than 2.75 million pounds of the product. A full train-carload of Snow Flakes had just been sent to California, the newspaper reported, and other cars were bound for Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, Colorado and Wyoming. The California-bound train was decorated with a “very appropriate streamer indicating the contents and the name of the company manufacturing the article,” the Review reported.

There were glitches, of course.

“The incandescent electric light in use at the Hominy mill, is quite a novelty for Yellow Springs,” an Oct. 24, 1890 Review article said. “As soon as some further improvements shall be made, it will work more satisfactorily.”

“The Hominy Flake mill has a new and more melodious whistle,” the Review reported.

Overall, the company led the way for what seemed a period of unlimited prosperity.

“With the Yellow Springs House in full operation and crowded with guests, the Hominy Flake Company operating their works to full capacity, and the buggy works turning out the latest style rigs, the lower end of Dayton Street will present a lively appearance this summer,” the Review said on March 13, 1891. “Yellow Springs people are to be congratulated upon the possession of such lively progressive and energetic business men.”

However, like some other Yellow Springs flakes, the American Hominy Flake Company eventually came to ruin.

The first sign of trouble may have appeared in a June 16, 1893, Review article reporting that James Currie of Springfield had filed suit against the company for $18,000, which, he claimed, the company owed him for his hominy flake patent. The paper reported that the judge in the case decided in favor of Currie, and that when the new owner attempted to reopen the plant he had “considerable trouble in getting hold of the machinery.”

Finally, on Oct. 27, 1893, the Review stated, “The machinery of our Hominy Flake mill is being torn down and loaded on cars for shipment to Indiana. When this mill was in operation it furnished work for quite a number of persons. We are sorry to see it go.”

—Diane Chiddister


Opera House also served as the community hall

Photo Courtesy of Antiochiana
The Village and Miami Township governments worked together to build the Yellow Springs Opera House in 1890.

If you had a bird’s-eye view of Yellow Springs on a warm spring evening in the early 1890s, you might have seen men and women from all parts of town dressed in their best dresses and suits making their way to the corner of Winter and Dayton Streets, the site of the Yellow Springs Opera House.

Over and over again villagers flocked to the Opera House, where they were entertained by minstrels, plays, Uncle Tom shows and lantern-slide shows, or mobilized by temperance speakers to fight the demon rum.

One of the tallest buildings in town, the three-story Opera House was “the image of many others scattered through the towns and villages of Ohio and Indiana.

The buildings all have massive facades in the brewery-Gothic style, elegant auditoriums, with seats that are decorated with elaborate iron fretwork,” Paul H. Rohmann wrote in an article on the opera House, “Wig, Mask and Hunting License,” which appeared in a 1954 issue of The New Yorker.

If you visited the Opera House on May 6, in 1892, you would have seen “A Demorest Medal Contest,” according to that day’s issue of the Yellow Springs Review. The evening included a flute solo, a prayer by the Rev. H.C. Middleton, a vocal solo by Stella Tufts and, competing for the medal, an assortment of prohibition speakers, including Ollie Cox addressing “The Bible and the Liquor Question,” Hattie Sidenstick speaking on “The Rumseller’s Legal Right,” and Gretta Berg of Clifton discussing “The World on Fire.”

The next week’s paper announced that Berg prevailed, and took the medal home.

A well-loved and much-used part of the Yellow Springs landscape in the 1890s, the Opera House was built in 1890 after a special act of the Ohio State Legislature was passed two years earlier to allow the Township and Village governments to jointly sponsor a $15,000 bond issue to finance the construction of the building, the Yellow Springs News reported in a special Yellow Springs centennial publication in 1956.

The Opera House served as the community town hall and was built as a multipurpose facility for community events and administrative offices of both the Township and Village.

However, like many other Yellow Springs institutions, the Opera House was born in controversy. According to the News article, the rumor circulated that after all votes had been cast on the bond issue, the vote counters, who supported the construction project, announced the results by sticking their heads out the window and shouting the win, then stuffing all the votes into a nearby stove. There was no recount.

Controversy again stalked the Opera House in 1891, when a dance school rented space in the building. An outraged letter writer said in the Yellow Springs Review that dancing was morally wrong because “the anatomical construction of woman does not permit her to engage in the violent exercise of the dance without incurring severe penalties.”

While the dancing school’s fate is unclear, the Opera House prospered during the next several decades. Activities in the Opera House in 1905, according to a research paper by Keith Overton, included meetings of The Farmers Club, the Veterans 44th annual reunion, the Grand Concert for the Living Vine Club of Springfield (which cost 10 cents), the play Quo Vadis, a performance by the Ithica Male Quartet, a concert by Olidence and Houks Minstrels and a sermon on temperance by the Rev. G.D. Black.

The Opera House was the cultural center of the village and, in the 1930s, housed both the Yellow Springs Summer Players and the Antioch Players. About that time those groups’ performances became known for unannounced visitations by the building’s full-time residents, bats.

“Along about the third or fourth play of our first season, a bat made his stage debut and established a standard for appositeness that no other bat, and few actors, ever equalled on that stage,” Rohmann wrote.

“In the old stock favorite, Death Takes a Holiday, the character Death was accompanied at his first entrance by a bat who swooped over his shoulder, circled the stage, then darted out of sight,” Rohmann said. “It was a masterly piece of dramaturgy — sharp, restrained, authentic.”

However, subsequent bat appearances were less appropriate, according to Rohmann. “If that bat had then been content to retire, all might have been well. But, apparently stage-struck, he, or another like him, had to keep coming back, whether it was his kind of scene or not. He fluttered brazenly into a Park Avenue penthouse, zigzagged through one of O’Neill’s tramp steamers, and blundered into boudoirs and barrooms, hospital wards and prison cells,” he wrote.

After a while, according to Rohmann, the actors determined that, during any given performance, there was a one-in-five chance of a bat appearance and a one-in-nine chance that the bat would “distract the audience with fancy flying.”

Taking the attitude that “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” according to a later Yellow Springs News column by Louise Betcher, the producers decided to mount a production of Dracula. However, during that play’s run, not a single bat appeared.

—Diane Chiddister

Photo Courtesy of Antiochiana
Top guns at Antioch, ca. 1884
Unidentified Antioch College students display firearms outside South Hall, despite a regulation prohibiting guns on campus. The sign, which says ‘Death’s Shade,’ possibly satirizes the Latin mottoes students would give the many literary societies on campus.


Yellow Springs schools integrated in 1887

When the Union School House opened in 1872, it was meant to house under one roof all the schoolchildren in Yellow Springs. Everyone except for black children.

Most local black children weren’t publicly educated at all until an African American school opened in 1871. Even in Ohio, it took legislators 22 years after the Civil War to get it straight, when the State approved a law desegregating public schools in Ohio.

As early as 1804, the State began passing the Black Laws that edged away at blacks’ civil rights, first to enter Ohio tax free, then to establish residency and to vote. According to a student paper written in the 1960s by Antioch college student Hugh Wylie, by 1831, blacks were prohibited by law from attending public school.

Meanwhile, at the beginning of the 19th century, the public school system was fragmented at best until 1825, when Miami Township divided into four school districts and relegated part of the tax fund for building schools. That year the first school in the township was built on Clifton Pike, which today is State Route 343, after which 10 others gradually sprouted in other districts in the village and the township.

In 1853 the Ohio legislature passed a law requiring local school boards to establish schools for black students when the number of black children exceeded 30. Almost two decades later Yellow Springs established its first school for black students on the south end of Dayton Street. Then in 1874 the school was relocated in the old village school on the southeast corner of West South College and High Streets.

Wylie reported that the late News editor Kieth Howard recalled interviewing a black woman who attended an all-white rural school on Bryan Park Road sometime in the 1870s. Though technically it may have been illegal, exceptions may have been made for a few black students in more remote areas. The woman remembered being ignored by the other students at first. However, she said she became imminently more popular when the other children saw her prowess on the baseball field.

Things began to change for schoolchildren in the village around the time of the Civil War. Under the leadership of Benjamin Arnett, a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church who served as a State Representative from Greene County, the Ohio Unionist Party gradually began repealing the Black Laws. Arnett, who lived in Wilberforce, introduced the bill in 1887 repealing the last of the Black Laws that would make racial segregation of public schools illegal.

Yellow Springs resident Lucy Wolford, who was a student at the Union School House school in the 1880s, told Wylie, “I’ve seen Bishop Arnett many times. When he got in a buggy there wasn’t any room left.”

A powerful black man representing a white constituency, Arnett got his repeal passed on Feb. 22, 1887, but he didn’t stop there. He and a Reverend Jackson traveled around the area educating communities about the bill’s provisions. Jackson came to speak in Yellow Springs a month after the bill’s passage, likely influencing local resident Silas Wills to campaign throughout the village in support of the cause.

Several years before, Wills had been denied his right to vote, legally given to blacks in 1870, and had bought property in the village with the proceeds from a lawsuit he won against the State.

Still devoting energy toward equal treatment of blacks in the village, Wills, on the eve of integration in town, went to all the black homes urging parents to send their kids to the Union School House.

Many were afraid, his son, J. Walter Wills, told Antiochiana in an article in 1964, but “Silas kept saying that the time had come when a man had to stop being a Negro and had to become an American. Nobody can take your children through the door of that school but you. If you don’t do it now, you may never get the chance again.”

Wills said that on the first day of school in September 1887, his father stood at the door and counted the number of black students that came. All of them attended school that day, he said.

Wolford, who was white, and a black man named Will Henry, had slightly differing memories as students during those early days of integration, according to Wylie’s paper. Wolford recalled a general sense of incredulity among Yellow Springs citizens that integration would actually come to fruition. A.E. Humphreys, editor of the Yellow Springs Review, wrote an editorial anticipating that some families would pull their students out of the school in protest.

The paper published another editorial at the beginning of the school year: “Young America’s fathers and mothers are watching this opening with special interest and not a little anxious. The striking of the word ‘black’ from the Ohio Statutes has removed the obstacle that prevented Colored children attending the White schools, but it did not remove the prejudice that exists in the minds of white parents against mixed schools. . . we can only hope for the best and see what we shall see.”

But Wolford insisted that integration in the school happened without incident. Boys and girls sat on opposite sides of the room. The boys played together at recess, though the black girls played separately from the white girls, she recalled. The boys shared a bathroom, but the black and white girls had separate toilets.

“Don’t let anyone tell you we had trouble like in Little Rock and those places,” Wolford said. None of the students left the school in protest of the new arrangement, she said.

Henry recalled that on the first day of classes all the black children were sent home because a local minister and two school board members were protesting at the school.

He also recalled that black students had to sit behind the white students, at the back of the room. But he concurred with Wolford that, in his memory, none of the students objected so much that they had to leave the school.

Wolford’s husband, J.N. Wolford, a former editor and publisher of the News, remembered hearing that Cedarville schools integrated smoothly, except that the blacks were taught in a separate crowded room for several years, according to Wylie.

Bessie Totten, the late curator of Antiochiana, remembered a cousin who attended the Union School House at the time of integration had been stoned by a group of black boys, and that there were some people who just didn’t accept the change, according to Wylie. Some also felt that integration put black teachers out of a job, and that mixed schools weren’t acceptable unless black teachers were hired.

—Lauren Heaton


Early downtown shops destroyed in fires

Photo Courtesy of Antiochiana
First published by the ‘Hustead News,’ this photo shows the destruction of the May 6, 1895, fire, in downtown Yellow Springs.

During the 1890s, several big fires devastated downtown Yellow Springs, destroying many of the buildings that housed early local businesses.

The fires highlighted a serious problem for the village in the late 19th century: It did not have a fire department, leaving Yellow Springs to rely on bucket brigades, lawn hoses and help from Springfield and Xenia to fight fires here.

Several early downtown businesses on Dayton Street were destroyed in a fire on Nov. 6, 1891, though there is little information available on the blaze. The fire did prompt the organization of a fire department, but the department apparently did not last long, the News reported in a special section celebrating the centennial of Yellow Springs in 1956.

That fire, however, was small compared to the one that hit Yellow Springs four years later. The Yellow Springs Torch, which is a predecessor of the News, called the fire a turning point in the village’s history. “The big fire of Nov. 6th, 1891, which devastated Dayton Street, has been eclipsed, and the conflagration of May 6th, 1895, will hereafter be the historic point from which to reckon all other local events,” the Torch reported on May 10, 1895, in a long article on the fire.

“The greatest conflagration that ever visited Yellow Springs came in devastating fury last Monday,” the Torch said, “leaving in its track a desolated mass of ruins, blackened chimney stacks, ghosts of trees stripped of the fresh tender foliage of Spring, and yawning holes filled with twisted and seared iron roofing and heaps of smoldering ashes to mark the place where a whole block of buildings stood. . .”

Started around 11:30 a.m. in the Little Elevator, a large grain elevator near Dayton Street and the railroad, the fire destroyed nine buildings in one block “bounded on the west by Corry Street, east by Xenia Avenue and the railroad, north by Dayton Street,” the Torch reported. The destruction included a hotel, a grocery store, a livery stable, a restaurant and the old Methodist Church building, which the Torch described as the first structure “erected this side” of the Yellow Springs Creek, around 1840.

Because the village did not have a fire department at the time, requests were made to Springfield and Xenia. The Springfield squad was the first to arrive, by rail, around 1:30 p.m., and Xenia firefighters got to the scene about 15 minutes later.

Though the firefighters could not save the nine buildings, newspaper reports indicate that the fire crews and others were able to keep the blaze from spreading. They were also helped by the wind, which shifted the fire away from the post office and Xenia Avenue. Antioch College students formed a bucket brigade and passed 120 buckets of water “in less than no time,” the Sun reported, helping to save “lots of property.”

Many items were also saved by villagers who piled the material in yards and on the streets around the burning buildings. “Never was so much done so well by both the men and women,” the Torch said about the firefighting effort.

The cause of the fire was unknown, the Torch and the Springfield Sun reported. The blaze caused an estimated $12,000 to $18,000 in damages, most of it covered by insurance. The Torch reported that all the buildings destroyed in the fire, except for a carriage factory, would be rebuilt.

On this fire’s heels came another large blaze that broke out on July 25, 1895, on downtown Xenia Avenue. The fire started in Adsit Bakery on the east side of Xenia around 3 p.m., the Torch reported. The fire spread both north and south down that side of the street, destroying about six buildings, including the bakery, a hotel and an office on Glen Street, according to the Torch.

A bucket brigade was able to keep the fire from spreading farther north along the street. The “bucket men,” as the Torch called them, with the help of the Xenia and Springfield fire departments, were also able to save the Winters Hotel, which may have been located on Glen Street.

The Sun reported that the fire caused about $10,000 in damages.

In response to the two fires, the Yellow Springs council started debating local fire protection efforts. But despite the tragic events, it appears some were apprehensive about paying for protection.

A special election was held in August 1895 on a $7,000 issue to purchase a fire engine and build a reservoir, but it failed, the News reported in its 1956 special. Another special election was held a month later on a plan to build a $23,000 waterworks, but it was also voted down. At the same time, the council approved new building regulations to beef up fire protection efforts.

Then in January 1896, another large fire broke out on Xenia Avenue and Glen Street, destroying several houses. The Xenia fire squad refused to help, while Springfield sent a crew by railroad car.

In an article on the fire, the Sun criticized Yellow Springs for its lack of fire protection services. Carrying a headline that read in part, “Poor Old Unprotected Yellow Springs Again Fire Swept,” the article said that the village was “not protected by fire apparatus of any kind, save several sections of lawn hose.” A few days later, several horses, farm apparatus and 5,500 bushels of grain were destroyed in a barn fire, according to the News.

The council purchased a hand-drawn chemical engine in February 1896. A month later, a fire company was formed, and on April 19 voters approved a $2,500 bond issue to purchase the fire engine and five water cisterns.

It was not until 1907 that the Yellow Springs Volunteer Fire Department, which would later reorganize and become Miami Township Fire-Rescue, was formed.

—Robert Mihalek


An ex-slave, Gaunt started annual charitable tradition


Though he was born into slavery, Wheeling Gaunt was able to buy himself and two relatives out of slavery and build an extensive estate, part of which he would donate to the Village when he died.

Little is known about Gaunt’s life, so it’s unclear why he would give the Village nine acres of farmland and start a tradition — the delivery of flour and sugar to Yellow Springs widows — that continues today.

In 1812, Wheeling Gaunt was born into slavery on a tobacco plantation owned by a John F. Gaunt on the Ohio River in Carrollton, Ky. When he was 4, Wheeling Gaunt’s mother was sold to a slave trader who was headed south, and Gaunt never saw her again. Every day he worked in the fields for his owner, harvesting the crop for his owner, drying the leaves for his owner, planting the new tobacco seeds for his owner. But he had a vision.

It is unclear how long Gaunt had to work or how much he made for “blacking boots and peddling apples,” as local historian Phyllis Lawson Jackson wrote in a research file on Gaunt. But somehow, after devoting 32 years of his life to a man known as his master, he managed to save enough money, $900, to buy himself out of slavery and on June 20, 1845, Wheeling Gaunt was a free man.

As if the monumental task of purchasing his own freedom didn’t mean anything unless he could share it with his family, he remained in Carrollton to work and save money to purchase two other slaves. Because he was free, Gaunt was able to move up the labor ladder, and he drove wagons as a teamster and continued to work on others’ farms.

In April 1847, Gaunt paid N.D. Smith $200 for a 21-year-old relative named Nick on condition that Smith was “not responsible for the health or soundness of said slave.”

Three years later Gaunt bought his wife, Amanda, for $500. When he later realized she was technically his property, he filed manumission papers to set her free, Scott Sanders, the Antioch University archivist, said.

All the while Gaunt was amassing property throughout Carrollton. In 1847, the same year he purchased Nick, he bought his first property with a home on it. According to Sanders, by the time Gaunt was ready to move on, he had acquired perhaps 10 properties, some in Carrolton’s commercial district.

Even as a landowner, Gaunt was still considered by some to occupy a lower rung in society. An 1850 national census report on Gaunt’s estate lists two presumably white tenants ahead of the Gaunts themselves.

The family came to Yellow Springs some time in the 1860s, perhaps because they’d heard of the racial tolerance of Antioch College or the community of freed slaves Moncure Daniel Conway had brought to the village. Gaunt built a two-story green revival brick home on a sizable property near the corner of North Walnut and Dayton Streets. He then added three to four small cottages and called them “Gaunt cottages.”

Gaunt was a pious man and a member of the Central Chapel A.M.E. Church. He also supported the kind of education he himself likely lacked, donating money to Wilberforce University and the Payne Theological Seminary. He also ran for the Yellow Springs school board in February 1887, the year racial integration occurred in the public schools.

At some point Gaunt acquired the tract of land on the south side of West South College Street, just east of what today is called Wright Street, and had it farmed.

And though little information about his activities in the last 30 years of his life is available, he may have been known outside of Yellow Springs because just before Gaunt died the Cincinnati Commercial Gazette ran an article summarizing his newly formulated will and calling him “our wealthy colored citizen.”

At 82, Gaunt fell sick with Bright’s disease. In January 1894 he bequeathed his entire estate, estimated at a value of $30,000, to his second wife, donating property to Wilberforce College. He also left the nine-acre tract on West South College to the Village, stipulating that proceeds from the rent be used to buy flour for the “poor and worthy widows” in Yellow Springs.

According to a letter from a researcher named C.W. Boyer to the late Read Viemeister in 1976, the Village council in February 1894 had to consider a resolution to accept the conveyance of Gaunt’s land, which, according to council rules, had to be read on three separate days in order to pass. But Gaunt wasn’t showing any signs of recovering, and the council members didn’t know how much longer he would live. One evening council agreed to make an exception and read the resolution three times in one night. It passed unanimously.

The Yellow Springs Torch, which during this period was also called the Review and the Weekly Citizen, published numerous announcements around the time of Gaunt’s death in May 1894. The Torch, which titled its articles “Our Colored Folks,” said that Gaunt was “known to every distinguished man of his race, from Fred Douglass to Bishop Payne,” as one of our “most highly respected” and “noble, generous and kind-hearted citizens.”

The paper also reported that Gaunt had so many friends from Wilberforce, Springfield and Xenia assembled at his memorial service that Central Chapel’s High Street church was “filled to suffocation.” Gaunt is buried in Glen Forest Cemetery.

The year Gaunt died, on Christmas Eve as he requested, the Village delivered 69 sacks of flour to 23 of the most “needy and deserving” widows among the 50 or more who applied. Though the management of Gaunt’s estate caused the rent to fall short of an expected $90 that year, council member George H. Drake donated $20 out of pocket to make up the difference and allow an even distribution of flour among the recipients.

Years later the delivery was expanded to include sugar, and the Village continues the tradition of delivering flour and sugar to all local widows.

In 1955, the Village named the land after Gaunt.

When he died the Review said of Gaunt: “Many wealthy men have died in this community but none perhaps will be remembered so long and so gratefully as Mr. Gaunt.”

—Lauren Heaton



Installment 1: 1803 to 1853
Installment 2: 1853 to 1868
Installment 3: 1853 to 1868