Pioneer Days: A First-person Account by Thomas Witten

In the late 1890s and early 1900s, George W. Wilkinson, the editor of the North Baltimore Beacon newspaper, encouraged elderly local residents to write about their experiences in the settling of southern Wood County. He published their letters in a series of articles which he titled “Interesting Pioneer Sketches.” The Beacon ran the articles over a ten year period from approximately 1900 to 1910.

In 2015, the North Baltimore Ohio Area Historical Society (NBOAHS) published three of these letters in Pioneer Letters, Series I. Two additional letters were published in early 2016. The letter below is the third and final letter of Series II.

The NBOAHS has no current plans to publish additional pioneer letters from the Beacon archives. However, anyone interested in reading all of the many unpublished pioneer letters can find them in the microfilm copies of the Beacon at the North Baltimore Public Library, the Wood County Public Library, and the Center for Archival Collections at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio.

Thomas Witten (born 1821 – died 1910) provided the following letter in which he describes Henry Township in the 1860s, the arrival of the B&O Railroad, hunting in Henry Township, and the building of North Baltimore in the 1870s. This article is directly transcribed from the North Baltimore Beacon issue of November 8, 1901.

Buffalo Gnat

While Black Swamp residents most often mentioned mosquitoes as their greatest insect pest, other biting insects such as the buffalo gnat (black fly) were also a major problem.


As some of the Letters, But Interesting

One Day Taken To Travel From Findlay to Van Buren—The Buffalo Gnat and the Trouble Caused to Farmers

By Thomas Witten to Beacon Reporter

Editor Beacon—I have been requested to give some information from which a pioneer letter may be written. You are perfectly welcome to anything of interest I can tell you, but I am afraid my knowledge of the pioneer days of Wood County will not amount to much because I came here after the hard time were over. I was 80 years old last Tuesday, election day, and it is hard for me to remember things that happened away back in those days, but in reading letters other men have written, I can remember some of the little incidents they relate and which interest me greatly. The pioneer letter is the first thing I read when I get the Beacon. Of course we were inconvenienced in a great many things, but the hardest of times of Wood County were over when I settled here having spent the prime of my life before I ever saw Wood County. I have lived here and around North Baltimore since 1867 and could give a description of the foundation of what is now known as North Baltimore. But that has been described heretofore and I will not go into details. (NBOAHS: slightly edited for clarity.)

We came from Crawford County and settled on what is known as the Isaac Taylor farm west of town. I traded a farm in Crawford County to Isaac Taylor for the farm here. We were one whole day coming from Findlay to Van Buren and I thought I would pull my horses to death. The mud and water was there in abundance and the wagon would sink into holes sometimes that would almost buy it. When we arrived in Van Buren we stayed there all night and started for this county, which was not very encouraging to look at and think about making your home there. We pulled on through to our new farm which already supported a log cabin, which Isaac Taylor had already lived in, and immediately began to make things look like home. Some of my land was cleared, but I had to clear a great deal and also ditch. On account of the great amount of water which stood all over this swamp we were compelled to do a great deal of draining in order to get the soil dry enough to plant a field of corn. (NBOAHS: slightly edited for clarity.)

My first trip to Wood County, which was about 4 years before I settled here, was in 1863 when I came out here to visit my brothers Harrison and William, who had came here in the earlier days of the country. They were digging out a home from what seemed to me to be nothing but black muck and timber. Ferguson Hughes was just cutting out the timber on his land and I asked my brother what he was doing that for and when he told me that Mr. Hughes was getting it ready to plant a crop. I informed him that I would not take one hundred acres and pay the tax for it. It looked like a waste of muscle and time to me to dig around in the forest and muck to put out a crop. (NBOAHS: slightly edited for clarity.)

I was married in Guernsey County, Ohio before I came out here to Miss Sarah E. Hardesty, my present wife. We had no children when we came to Wood County, but we had plenty of cares to surmount. My first season here in farming was one which was, I think, one of the worst seasons in the history of the county. A small insect, which they called a Buffalo gnat (NBOAHS note: Black Flies), and which I had never seen before or since, were so thick that they nearly ate everything up. I remember of John Howe trying to put out a field of corn and was compelled to tie a pot on the pole of his plow and keep a fire in it letting the smoke go up around his head keeping himself enveloped in smoke all the time to keep the gnats away. In this manner and various other we would go to the field and put out our crops.

Just a month or so before the engineer came through to survey for the B.&O., Frank Clayton and I were going through the woods when in going by a settler’s house he asked us what we were doing. We answered with a great deal of unnecessary “blowing up”, that we were running a railroad through the woods. The people of North Baltimore gave the railroaders a great dinner when they were laying the rails through here, the dinner being served in Peter’s barn; but as that has been given in other letters, and I will not dwell on the longer.

The Indians were all gone from Wood County when I came, but the deer and wild turkey still abounded in the woods. I remember a little incident that happened to me in a hunting expedition, or what I was going to make a hunting and killing expedition. I was fortunate enough one day to sight a deer and at once determined to have that deer to boil. I went to neighbor’s house and borrowed a gun and started after the deer which was near my place. I had not gone far when I discovered that I was not the only one who was interested in that deer, but another man was following it. He had been on its track through the woods he said, and therefore the deer belonged to him and not to me. He proceeded to run me off and take possession of the prize. I guess that this was about the only hunting incident that I remember. Hunting in those days was the occupation of a great many of the settlers and some made their entire living that ways and not by tilling the soil as the rest of us.

When I came here, North Baltimore was not thought of and we did our trading in Findlay and Van Buren. In 1873, Peters build his store and my wife and baby daughter Maggie, came up here to do some trading. This was when Mr. Peters first built his store and started into business. From this on the town continued to grow a little until there came to us the making of our large and prosperous city– -the oil boom. After that the town grew fast enough.

Well this is about all I can recall at present, but I want to do and say all in my power to interest some of the earlier settlers than myself as well as others to give the reporter a few minutes of time or better still sit down and write something yourself. It is one of the most interesting features that have ever been introduced here in our city or in this vicinity and large number of people read these letters the first thing when they pick up the paper. It is interesting to one and all and especially to the pioneers themselves. I have little more to say except that I moved back and forth from the farm three different times, but have lived here about 9 years and expect to spend the rest of my days here. I will now close and sit back and trust that the pioneer swill come to the front with more interest than they heretofore shown.

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