Yellow Springs: 1898-1913
Installment 5: 1898 to 1913
Simeon Fess reinvigorated Antioch College
When Antioch College students met their new president in the fall of 1906, they expected a big man. After all, they knew Simeon D. Fess as a leading University of Chicago scholar and a famous orator, and equated a large public stature with a corresponding physical appearance. But they were mistaken.
“There are those here today who recall with me a beautiful September morning in 1906 when, as a little band of students, we stood on the wooden steps at the north entrance of the college waiting with tense anticipation to catch the first glimpse of the new president, of whom so much had been said and written,” Homer Corry said in a eulogy he delivered years later at Fess’s funeral.
“The new president came from the Horace Mann home up to the gravel walk to the College and the inaugural ceremonies,” Corry said. “He was small, and at first it may have seemed that this was not the man who could fulfill the promise of rebuilding Antioch.”
At the time, Antioch desperately needed rebuilding. Once considered at the forefront of American higher education, Antioch had been worn down by its constant financial struggles. At the time of Fess’s inauguration, the school had only about 70 students and, according to Corry, “an almost hopeless outlook.” According to a biography of Fess by John Nethers, the college’s physical plant was badly in need of repair, its endowment held steady at only $100,000 and revenue from student fees only reached $5,000 a year.
But the strength of Fess’s stature and personality immediately turned things around.
Fess’s passion for education undoubtedly sprang from his own experiences, since education lifted him out of a bleak childhood. Born in a log cabin in Allen County, Ohio, Fess experienced the death of his father when Simeon was 4, and after that witnessed the further dissolution of his family’s circumstances.
“He had seen his father die,” wrote Fess’s son Lehr Fess. “He had seen Squire Oles take away the only milk cow the family had, in part payment of the tenant farmer’s rent; he had seen the kindly old country doctor remove a battered clock from the log-hewn mantel above the smoky fireplace as partial payment for services rendered.”
Almost sent to the poorhouse, 7-year-old Simmy Fess was instead taken in by an aunt, then “farmed out as a chore boy among neighboring farmers,” according to his son. He worked summers in order to attend school during the winter, and was such a promising student that he passed the teacher’s examination at 19. He taught school for seven years, attending Ohio Northern University during the summer. Upon graduation from Ohio Northern, Fess was immediately appointed as an instructor and later became professor of history.
After receiving a law degree, Fess became director of the Ohio Northern College of Law, and in 1902 answered a call from the president of the University of Chicago to help start a new university extension division. From that position, he came to Antioch in 1906.
But why did Fess leave a lucrative, established position to head up a college on the brink of collapse?
“It was because as one of the outstanding educators of that period, he had an intimate knowledge and fine appreciation of Horace Mann and his contribution to education and to American life,” wrote Corry. “He felt the challenge and accepted the adventure of rebuilding a college which had such a foundation. This decision is an index of his greatness. He was essentially unselfish and he constantly devoted himself to causes and institutions that were greater than the individual.”
Fess’s first step in reinvigorating the college was instituting a summer school with which to attract teachers who wished, as he once had, to complete their college degree. To further lure people to the summer school, Fess introduced the Antioch Chautauqua, taking advantage of a popular format of the time which featured lectures and entertainment. The Chautauqua caught on and remained in Yellow Springs from 1906 to about 1916.
Fess also attacked Antioch’s financial crisis by introducing an endowment fund drive in memory of Horace Mann, the college’s first president, seeking a $1 donation from every school teacher in Ohio, to reach a goal of $25,000, according to Nethers. Due to its small endowment, Antioch was on the verge of being expelled from the Ohio College Association.
During Fess’s 10 years at Antioch, the college did show improved health. Student enrollment increased dramatically, from an average of 50 to 70 students in the years preceeding his tenure to 234 students in 1907 and a peak of 279 students in 1915. He also made significant improvements to the physical plant, including the construction of a new gymnasium.
But Fess had less success tackling the root of Antioch’s financial difficulty, its small endowment, according to Nethers. Although his pleading letters to other Ohio college presidents kept Antioch in the Ohio College Association, he never did raise the $25,000 he had hoped for.
And Fess’s efforts took a considerable personal toll, according to Lehr Fess, who wrote that his father “struggled for years to keep Antioch alive, but exhausted his savings and himself to the point of a nervous breakdown.”
Perhaps inspired by Chautauqua speakers, Fess found his interest turning to politics. In 1912, he was one of three Ohio Republicans elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and he resigned the Antioch presidency in 1916. Ten years later he was elected to the Senate, where he spent much of his life, becoming what Lehr Fess called an “unofficial spokesman for the Harding, and later the Coolidge and Hoover, administrations.” At the 1928 Republican National Convention, Fess delivered the keynote address.
Although he spent much of his time in Washington, D.C., Fess maintained his large, stately home in Yellow Springs on the corner of Xenia Avenue and South College Street, and he and his wife, Eva, visited frequently. Until his death in December 1936, just after his 75th birthday — he had finally been defeated in his Senate bid the year before, largely due to his passionate support for Prohibition — Fess remained a local hero, his every hometown visit generously covered by the Dayton, Springfield and Yellow Springs papers.
Although Fess was not able to overcome Antioch’s considerable financial difficulties, he brought to the college a period of strong leadership, relative stability and hopefulness.
“To Fess must be given the credit,” wrote Nethers, “of keeping the college alive for 10 of its most difficult years.”
Fess’s Chautauquas brought thousands to Yellow Springs
Had you lived in Yellow Springs in the summer of 1907, you most likely would have attended the first Antioch College Chautauqua.
At the least, you would have felt pressure from the Yellow Springs News to do so. “Here will be the best thinkers of the age,” stated a News editorial in the days preceding the first event. “The burning problems of the times will be discussed — problems that affect not only the nation but all humanity. Here one will gain the inspiration to live a better life, to think higher thoughts and, for a time at least, will be lifted above the common drudgery of everyday toil.”
“Attendance at the Chautauqua is now the paramount issue in Yellow Springs,” the editorial further stated. “Burden your heart with it, let it sink deep and act.”
The Antioch Chautauqua was the brainchild of the college’s new president, Simeon D. Fess, and plans for the first event began even before his inauguration in 1906. “Arrangements have already been made to bring an array of talent to the place that should attract from far and near,” according to an announcement in the college bulletin.
With the Chautauqua, Fess hoped to attract more students to the college, which was facing a critical shortage — only 70 were on the roll when Fess began his tenure, according to biographer John Nethers in Simeon D. Fess: Educator and Politician. All the rage across the country, chautauquas were several-day events that featured both lectures and entertainment. To Fess, who himself traveled the chautauqua circuit as an orator, Antioch College, with its history of freethinkers, seemed a perfect chautauqua site.
The first local Chautauqua took place in Neff Park, in what is now Glen Helen. As advertised in the Chautauqua’s program, the Neff grounds were “the most picturesque in the State,” with “ever flowing springs, the beautiful cascades, the monarch oaks, the deep glens rich in plants and rock [that] make the grounds an ideal tenting place.”
Those who traveled to the Chautauqua from outside the village paid $3 to camp in the Glen, plus 25 cents for a meal, or 60 cents for three meals a day.
Of course, folks didn’t travel to Chautauqua just for pastoral beauty. They also sought the intellectual and spiritual edification proclaimed by the News, along with some down-home entertainment. The first evening’s events — the Chautauqua spanned 10 days, from June 21 to June 30 — included a dialect recital, “Paul Laurence Dunbar” by Ladru Layton; a lecture, “The Square Deal” by Rev. John Cleveland; a moving picture recital of Hiawatha; and a concert by the Dixie Jubilee Singers.
Other days featured lectures on “Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg” by Mrs. General Pickett, the “widow of the famous Confederate General”; “The New Woman and the Old Man” by the “silver-tongued” George W. Bain; “Christian Citizenship” by John Woolley; and “The Saloon and the Citizen” by Thomas H. Clark.
An evening’s entertainment also included magic by Brush the Wizard, musical offerings by the Otterbein Male Quartet and several duets by the Misses Long and Henderson.
The first year’s event was a great success, with attendance increasing daily until 4,000 attended the Chautauqua’s final day, according to Nethers. Heartened by its success, Fess declared the Chautauqua an annual event. Future Chautauquas were held at Antioch or at Neff Park.
Each year saw more visitors, according to Nethers, and some years as many as 20,000 people were said to attend the Sunday events, with several thousand on weekdays.
“The Antioch Chautauqua had somewhat of a ‘carnival atmosphere,’ Nethers wrote, “with several concession stands on the grounds selling soft drinks and candies, and frequently Fess’s sons ran a checking concession charging five cents per package. Boys in the audience, anxious to get a closer look at the entertainers, would climb nearby trees for a ‘front-row seat.’ Undoubtedly the locality of the Chautauqua provided encouragement and convenience for many a prankster, as well as the opportunities for the courting of the young.”
Among the famous personalities who appeared at the Chautauquas were Theodore Roosevelt, Warren G. Harding, William Jennings Bryan and Jane Addams, according to Nethers.
While Fess did succeed in increasing Antioch’s enrollment, he never did lead the college to the financial stability he had hoped for. Perhaps due to his frustration with his work, he turned more toward politics and by 1911 was spending the summers at the Ohio Constitutional Convention, thus unable to provide leadership for the Chautauqua.
According to Nethers, by 1914 and 1915, “it was evident that interest and enthusiasm in the Antioch Chautauqua was declining,” and the last program was held in 1916.
The Chautauqua’s success may have contributed to its own demise, by fostering Fess’s growing interest in politics and therefore leading to his neglect of the program he championed, said Nethers.
“Perceivably,” wrote Nethers of Fess, “he was indoctrinated in and enlightened by the many ideas and controversies discussed and illuminated in the Chautauqua, which influenced his political thinking.”
taxes and teetotalers—
“Saloon or no saloon. This is a fight for the homes of this town.” That’s how the News framed what appeared to be a fierce debate in 1905 on whether Yellow Springs would prohibit local businesses from selling alcohol.
The debate pitted the wets and the drys against one another and resulted in a special election on May 29, 1905, during which Yellow Springs residents voted 197 to 175 in support of the ban. The village’s four saloons were closed on July 4.
The drys, or those who supported prohibition, were led by the Anti-Saloon League and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. The WCTU had been very active in town for years and viewed prayer and the ballot box as weapons against alcohol.
The News, which was published by O.C. Wike and son, also supported the ban and ran large-type, front-page editorials two weeks in a row before the election.
The drys and their supporters framed the debate as a moral issue. “What is the saloon? What is it good for any way?” the News asked in a front page editorial on May 18, 1905. Saloons have “no record of good, pure, healthful, beautiful influence. There is nothing about it for which one might thank God for its existence or its effects.”
A week later, the paper proclaimed that “one town after another in Ohio is voting dry under the Beal local option law,” which gave communities the right to decide whether saloons could operate in their towns. “The saloon in Ohio is doomed,” the News said.
“Do you want it published to the world that Yellow Springs hasn’t enough manhood left in it to stand up and be counted for its homes and sobriety and public order?” the paper added.
The wets, or those who were against the ban, argued that closing the saloons would force Village Council to raise taxes or cut services. An article in the May 25 News reported that the village’s four saloons paid $700 annually in taxes. “Do you want to increase your already high taxes on your property just to please the Anti-Saloon League’s thirst for more glory?” the article’s unidentified author asked.
Opponents of the ban also took a libertarian point of view toward the debate, saying in a News article that “Yellow Springs is a sober, industrious and respectable town which has been going about its business for many years, doing that which pleased it best and enjoying itself in the manner it chose.”
“Which is the greater crime?” asked “Temperate Tax Payer,” who wrote a long front-page article in an extra edition of the News four days before the election. “To sell good, honest liquor to a good, honest people . . . or to be in conspiracy to disrupt a business which has come down to us through all the ages of time?”
“Prohibition does not prohibit and never will so long as people want to drink and liquor is made,” the article also stated.
In its article announcing the results of the election, the News called the May 29 election “the hottest contested” issue “ever held in Yellow Springs,” explaining that 20 more votes were cast during the election than the 1904 presidential contest.
After election officials announced that the drys had won, the News reported, “the victors held a jubilee meeting in the opera house, the church bells and college bell were rung loud and long and cheers went up from all over town and the wise men begun saying, ‘I told you so.’ ”
Beer would not be sold legally in town until the mid-1930s and it was the 1970s before liquor was available again.
Women’s Social Culture Club founded first public library
By 1899 Yellow Springs had most of the essential elements of an independent community, including a bank, a post office, schools, churches, a train station, police and local government and many businesses. But nearly 30 years after the Union School House was built and almost 50 years after Antioch College was established, the Village still did not have a public library.
The forward-thinking women of the Social Culture Club, contrary to what their title suggests, became a very industrious group. The ladies, “with no funds at hand, but only an abiding faith that what should be could be, undertook to supply the need,” Edna Dean Birch wrote in her 1935 history of the Yellow Springs Library Association.
In their own estimation, no cause other than the schools and the churches was more deserving, said Mary Ellis Tucker, a club member and the first librarian.
They swept through the village soliciting magazines and books for their reading room on the first floor of the deNormandie Building, on the northwest corner of Short Street and Xenia Avenue. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union donated the furniture, and on opening day everyone had to bring a book to contribute.
Soon the library had 77 volumes and several magazines that equaled “a surprisingly good collection of books for a start,” according to Birch.
The library existed off of a penny rental fee for books, fines, culture club dues, community contributions and tireless fundraising activities, such as entertainments, lectures, dinners and bake sales. If the cakes, pies and loaves of homemade bread consumed for the cause had been placed end to end,” Birch wrote, “I am sure they would have reached several miles.”
The first year the library was able to purchase 19 books for a total of $3.40, plus a dictionary, encyclopedia and subscriptions to six new magazines “to give the reading table a taste of literature.”
The reading room quickly gained popularity, and in two years the book collection had grown to 860, and magazines and newspapers, such as Harper’s Bazaar, Ladies’ Home Journal and the Saturday Evening Post, numbered 4,000. The year the Library Association incorporated in 1901 under the leadership of Mary Lehow, organizers realized they needed more space.
The Library Association trustees, still practically synonymous with the Social Culture Club, expanded the library first into a larger room in the same building, for $10 a month for rent, and raised the librarian’s salary from $5 to $8 a month. But within a year the town’s new hotspot had again outgrown its shelves.
In 1903, with the help of a small gift from Village Council, the library moved across the street to a spacious double room above what is now the Little Art Theatre. Adalia Little, a founding member of the culture club, became the first librarian at the new location.
The library remained there for the next 27 years, though not without the financial strain of rent, heat and electric bills, extended hours and new books. Even when the Young Ladies Guild of the disbanding Christian Church donated $50 in seed money in 1908 for the eventual purchase of a dedicated library building, the operation was precarious.
Then in 1913, when local funds were siphoned off to repair village churches, it was uncertain whether the community could continue to sustain the library.
But neither the Library Association nor the social club would hear of it. Mrs. C.C. Stephenson of the association led a successful fund drive that raised $150 and saved the library.
As for the modest start the Young Ladies Guild donation provided, their $50 eventually grew enough over 25 years to attract a federal grant to build a new library at South Walnut and Short Streets, where the Yellow Springs Board of Education office is located today.
E.S. Kelly helped Whitehall Farm flourish
When Aaron Harlan built his Greek revival mansion on a farm just north of Yellow Springs in 1842, Walnut Hill, as it was originally named, was so ambitious and expensive it became known for a time as “Harlan’s Folly.” And over the next half century the property’s subsequent owners saw it through many a dark age.
But when Edwin S. Kelly, founder of Kelly-Springfield Tires and one of Springfield’s foremost entrepreneurs, brought his family there in 1899, the estate flourished with the ostentatious grandeur that its builder had always intended for it.
E.S. Kelly was, among other things, early into the manufacturing of rubber tires, as illustrated by one of his ads, “Have you ever had the pleasure of riding on rubber tires?” He was said to own half of Springfield at the turn of the century, and he came to Yellow Springs to retire as a farmer and a traveller. Kelly did not come to withdraw into the quiet life.
“A tall, striking figure and open hearted, he was soon a well-loved resident of the town,” Jean Kappell wrote in an article on the farm in the Dayton Daily News. “Yellow Springs remembers big, handsome, generous Ed Kelly as ‘the one-man community chest.’
Affectionately known to friends as “Uncle Ed,” Kelly did a lot of good for the small community down the hill from his property.
“E.S. furnished teams, gravel and manpower to surface our dirt streets,” former Village Manager Howard Kahoe told the Dayton Daily News in 1974. “If anybody needed food, coal or bills paid, Ed Kelly quietly got it done.”
Kelly’s money went for show as well.
One of the first things he did when he arrived was to attach the Greek Ionic pillared portico to the south side of the house, then paint over the red brick to a stark white and rename the place “Whitehall.”
As he traveled the world setting up Kelly Tire agencies in New York, London and Milan, he collected furniture and curios, such as Ming Dynasty porcelain, a great Flemish tapestry and a hand-carved Tudor dining room sideboard from the 1902 World’s Fair in Paris.
“It’s a geography lesson just to read the shipping labels on crates for Whitehall,” a village train station master claimed.
Kelly often traveled with his family, but as his daughter, Martha Rankin, remembered when she sold the mansion in 1974, they always came back to Yellow Springs.
“I vaguely remember Paris. Whitehall, of course, was home,” she said.
It was more than just Rankin’s home. Whitehall became widely renowned in stock circles between 1908 and 1913 as the breeder of the most famous Shorthorn bull in the world, Whitehall Sultan, which sired the pedigree of 80 percent of the outstanding shorthorns in the U.S., the Springfield Sun reported in 1939.
The Whitehall estate was not just a show place but a working, profitable farm. “Kelly transformed his 1,100 acres into one of the most beautiful and productive farms in the entire Miami Valley,” one Springfield paper of the period reported.
D.F. DeWine managed the estate, which produced over 7,000 bushels of wheat, plus corn and alfalfa for the 800 heads of Duroc-Jersey hogs and 140 Holstein and Jersey dairy cows. Much of the farm’s power came from a battery that could store power collected from the traction line that ran through Yellow Springs and had a stop at the estate.
Kelly had a loyal streak in him, and once when a local priest came into his Springfield electric company behaving rudely to his secretary, Kelly cut off Fr. McGuire’s power for an entire priory until the priest returned to apologize, Rankin recalled.
He also had a bit of wit and charm. Though female doctors were uncommon during his day, his wife was finally able to convince him to see Bettina Titlow, according to Rankin. “Though not for anything he’d have to take his clothes off for, goodness knows,” she said.
Dr. Bettina checked out his vitals, “then she gave him a stern look — she had a sharp nose and piercing eyes — and said, ‘E.S., have you ever had syphilis?’ ‘My God, NO!’ Pap roared. ‘Have you?’ ”
Perhaps the most lasting memory of E.S. Kelly is the auditorium on the Antioch College campus that bears his name. As an Antioch trustee in 1909, he donated $1,000 to convert the college chapel into a state of the art gym and auditorium to support the college and high school basketball teams.
Kelly remained at his estate until he died of Hodgkin’s disease in 1935, but Whitehall may never have known a more boisterous or loyal supporter.
cement sidewalks to electric lights and rails—
During the first decade of the 1900s, a number of technological innovations came to Yellow Springs, making it easier to travel out of town, walk around the village, fight fires and see at night.
The turn of the century saw the construction of an electric traction line, running through town on Xenia Avenue, and connecting Xenia and Springfield. In 1902, the Little Miami Traction Company opened the line and sold out to the Springfield and Xenia Traction Company a year later. The first ticket in town was sold to Towne Carlisle, a businessman, who never used Ticket No. 1.
The trolley ran to Xenia and Springfield every hour between 5 a.m. and midnight every day. In a special publication celebrating the centennial of the incorporation of Yellow Springs in 1956, the News reported that the trolley featured five cars, two combination passenger and freight cars and three coaches. The trolley could travel up to 60 miles per hour, though the engineers who built it limited its speed for safety reasons.
In the summer, out-of-town visitors came to Yellow Springs on “special excursion cars” to enjoy the free band concerts and dancing at the Neff Park Pavilion and later to the Chautauquas.
The traction line served the community and its neighbors for nearly 32 years. The last car rolled down the tracks on July 27, 1934, when the trolley system was replaced by a motor bus service.
The Village was also trying to improve transportation and its roads during this period. In September 1903, Village Council agreed to construct cement sidewalks, gutters and curbs downtown. A month later, the Village sent out notices to property owners on Dayton Street and Xenia Avenue to put down sidewalks or Council would lay the walks and bill the property owners.
In February 1904, several property owners sued the Village over its plans, the News reported. Some, “armed with guns, threatened to shoot the surveyors if they approached their properties,” Ernest Morgan wrote in the News in 1947.
Despite an injunction, some construction began in the spring. Then in June 1904, Council passed a resolution instructing property owners in other parts of town to build cement sidewalks, curbs and gutters. In August, the Village prevailed in the injunction fight with the property owners, and work likely continued.
The construction project was not without other problems. The town’s only bank, Citizens Bank, blamed its purchase of $13,000 worth of Village-government-bonds, which Council used to fund the work, on a cash shortage that brought a suspension of payment to depositors, the News reported on July 13, 1905. Word around town, the News said, indicated that Citizens could not readily use the bonds as collateral “to meet the heavy demands for cash” that “is responsible for the temporary cessation of business.”
While the bank said it would only be closed for a few days, it never reopened. In August, the Miami Deposit Bank, which would later change owners and names and today is US Bank, opened for business.
Another noteworthy innovation was the organization of a volunteer fire department in 1907. After years of futilely fighting fires with bucket brigades and relying on neighboring cities’ departments to help, the Yellow Springs Volunteer Fire Department was founded with 25 members, including the chief, George H. Drake, a saw mill operator.
“It is the purpose of the new company to equip the engine and repair the apparatus in general,” the News reported. Council agreed to provide rubber coats and “lend any assistance to make the fire protection better.”
Two years later, another important innovation came to town after voters approved a $6,000 bond issue to erect street lights around town. The project was overseen by the newly appointed Board of Trustees of Public Affairs, and on April 28, 1910, Mayor John H. Funderburg turned on the power to 60 streets.
At first, the power, which, according to an account written by Ernest Morgan for the News in 1947, was purchased from a small, private firm in Cedarville, was used just for lighting from 6 p.m. to midnight. Later it was left on all night, Morgan wrote.
In the summer of 1910, Council ordered the wiring of the Yellow Springs Opera House and the post office, Morgan wrote. In the winter, homes and businesses were gradually connected.
In February 1911, C.H. “Herb” Ellis, who had held several positions, including Village clerk, editor of the News and postmaster, was named superintendent of the local “baby electric utility.” Under his watch, the Village utility system grew to include water and sanitary sewer.
Ellis served as utility superintendent for 36 years, retiring in 1947. In 1955, the Village honored him by dedicating as a public park land at the Village north-side waterworks and naming the site Ellis Park.
More progress to provide utilities in town continued during this period when in 1913, the News reported, the gas company installed and connected gas lines in Yellow Springs by November.