History of Johnson Township, Champaign County, Ohio

From: History of Champaign County, Ohio
Judge Evan P. Middleton, Supervising Editor
B. F. Bowen & Company Inc. (Publisher)
Indianapolis, Indiana 1917



JOHNSON TOWNSHIP.

Johnson township, named in honor of Silas Johnson, its first permanent settler, was cut off from Concord township and is one of the several townships of the county which fell within the limits of the original Mad River township of 1805. Later, upon the organization of Concord township, it was made a part of that township and subsequently was set off as an independent political organization when it was sufficiently settled to justify its erection into an independent township.

PROBABLY HIGHEST POINT IN THE STATE.

As now organized Johnson township contains thirty sections of land or nineteen thousand two hundred acres. It is the middle township of the western tier, being bounded on the north by Adams township, on the east by Concord and Mad River townships, on the south by Jackson township and on the west by Miami and Shelby counties. It falls within ranges II and 12 of township 3. The township bears the unique distinction of having probably as high an altitude as any one township in the state of Ohio. It was stated in one of the state geological reports that Johnson township had one point with an elevation of one thousand three hundred and twenty six feet, but the latest map of the department of the interior gives the highest point of the township as one thousand two hundred and fifty feet. Of course, there may be higher points in the township, but this altitude was the highest recorded by the government surveyors in 1916. This point is in the southeastern corner of section 7, about a quarter of a mile north of the Pence school house.

DRAINAGE AND TOPOGRAPHY.

The township presents a curious topographical study. Roughly speaking, its surface falls into two watersheds, the south and east portion falling into the Mad River valley with Nettle creek as the drainage factor, and the north and west falling into the watershed of the Great Miami, with Mosquito creek as the drainage agent. When the Detroit, Toledo & Ironton railroad was built it passed along the watershed between Nettle and Mosquito creeks. With the watershed to the east of the middle of the township most of the territory falls within the basin of Miami river. The only body of water in the county which approaches the dignity of a lake is found in section 16, in the northern part of the township. This lake is nothing more than an expansion of the creek of the same name. In former years this expansion created a swampy lake of half a mile in length, extending across the southwest quarter of section 16 from east to west, but at the present time it is reduced in size to a few rods in width and some score of rods in length.

The government map of 1916 dignifies it with the name of Mosquito lake. It requires no stretch of the imagination to explain the origin of the names of these two creeks. No doubt there are other creeks in the county inhabited by mosquitos and bordered with nettles, but back in the dim. and misty past someone was struck with the abundance of mosquitoes along the creek, which was still unnamed, and in his way of describing this stream to his neighbor he called it by the name which brought to him the most vivid memories. Likewise he who named Nettle creek undoubtedly had occasion to recall the warm reception which the festive nettle gave him as he tramped along its banks. The Leatherwood stream finds the origin of its name in the trees of that name which graced its banks in other days.

EVIDENCES OF THE GLACIAL PERIOD

In no other township in the county has nature been so lavish with topographical decorations. Sharply rising hills and correspondingly precipitous valleys are to be found up and down Nettle and Mosquito creeks and the many little streams which find their way into these creeks. Hidden away in these hills are to be found bountiful beds of gravel, and the geologist who walks over the township is greeted with kames and eskers on every hand. Indisputable proof that the glacial period found Johnson township submerged under a coat of snow and ice is to be seen by the most casual observer. The farmer who hauls a load of gravel to fill a mud hole in the barn lot does not stop to think that he would not have that gravel if it had not been for the glacier invasion of tens of thousands of years ago.

And if other evidences are wanting that the glacial drift was partial to Johnson township, the presence of thousands of granite boulders furnishes additional proof. It is reported that an attempt was made some years ago to start a factory in this township for the manufacture of granite ware, but before the suggestion was acted upon it was found that the process would be too expensive to make it profitable.

In addition to these granite boulders, which, at the present time, command a good price, the township has ample supplies of good brick and tile clay and there have been hundreds of thousands of brick and hundreds of miles of tile manufactured in the southern part of the township. The presence of gravel, boulders and clay furnish abundant evidence of glaciation, and if additional evidence is wanting, it may be found in the shape of the beds of the watercourses and the regular contour of the watersheds of the township. Along the larger streams are to be found beds of peat which have never been commercially valuable. In connection with the beds of peat are deposits of marl and muck both of which have a commercial value yet untouched.

LARGEST BUCKEYE TREE IN THE STATE.

The township was originally heavily forested with all kinds of hardwood trees peculiar to this latitude. In all their majestic splendor there were to be found the poplar, ash, walnut, maple, oak, beech, sugar, hickory and buckeye. Everywhere the sugar and beech were to be found on the upland and the oak and hickory on the lower levels. But these forests have practically disappeared and today only scattered clumps of trees are to be found in the township, the most extensively forested tracts being found on the high lands bordering Mosquito and Nettle creeks.

Johnson township boasted in 1876 of the largest buckeye tree in the state of Ohio. It was announced that the state should be searched over in the spring of 1876 for the largest buckeye tree to be found, the intention being to exhibit boards of the tree at the centennial exposition in Philadelphia. The state's forests were searched diligently and when the reports were in from all over the state it was found that the largest buckeye tree in the state was on the farm of E. H. Furrow (section 22), about four and one half miles north of St. Paris. The tree was cut and found to be seventy feet in height with a diameter at the base of three feet and eight inches, the bole continuing for practically the same diameter for thirty feet. While there was no dispute that the Johnson township tree was the largest in the state, yet it was found when it was cut open that portions of it were not sound and for this reason it was not shipped to the exposition.

FIRST SETTLER IN TOWNSHIP.

Silas Johnson, the first settler in the township bearing his name, was born in Virginia in 1758, later locating in Fayette county, Kentucky, and came to what is now Johnson township in the spring of 1802 with his two sons, James and Charles. They cleared a site for a cabin and spent the summer clearing up the tract of ground surrounding the cabin. It would be interesting to present on the page in this connection a photograph of this first house in Johnson township, but there were no kodaks in 1803. The house was only a rude log affair, this first cabin in Johnson township, but it was home to Silas Johnson, his wife, Phebe, and their children seven - Walker and James (twins), Charles, Silas, Jr., Rebecca, Elizabeth and Phebe. To this humble cabin came these nine members of the Johnson family in January, 1803, but the little cabin soon proved too small and they built a large one a few hundred feet below the site of the old one. Here they lived until after the land on which they had squatted was surveyed. Then the settlers began to pour in and when Johnson's land was valued by the government appraisers they fixed a value of eight dollars an acre on it, which meant that Johnson would have to pay that much in order to keep it. Rather than pay this much he decided to move and accordingly moved to an adjoining section on the north.

On his new farm he built two cabins, about two feet apart, both of logs and about eighteen by twenty feet in size. Each one had one low door and one window without glass. The roof was only clapboard, the hinges of his doors were of wood, the chimney was of mud and sticks, the door was of split puncheons and the floor was of the same quality of timber. And this was the first dwelling house on a tract of entered land in Johnson township. Here Silas Johnson continued to live until 1818, when he moved to Adams township, dying there the following year. His remains lie in the churchyard along Indian creek.

Silas Johnson was a typical pioneer; a veteran of the Revolutionary War and a major of the War of 1812, with three of his sons with him in the latter war. His children were remarkably long lived, pearly all of the family living to the age of eighty, Rebecca dying on October 1, 1880, in her eighty sixth year. Johnson is set down in local annals as a high minded man, a Christian man, interested in the civic life of his township and a great worker in getting the township organized.

OTHER EARLY SETTLERS.

Following Johnson came an aged pioneer by the name of Carter, who with two sons and two daughters and two sons-in-law, Cox and Fleming, made a temporary stop of three years in the township. The Carter contingent left en masse in 1807 for regions farther west. In the same year John and Philip Long came to the township from Horseshoe Bend, Rockinham county, Virginia. There were two John Longs, who, in conformance with their relative sizes, were known as "Big" John and "Little" John. "Big" John and Philip were brothers, while "Little" John, although from the same Virginia neighborhood, was of different family and came somewhat later to the township. To add to the John Long confusion a third Long bearing the same prefix arrived in the township and it became necessary to find a descriptive adjective for him. Whether he was big or little, history does not record, but he was probably about the size of either "Big" or "Little" John, and for this reason he was known to his neighbors as "Cucumber" Johnwhy the cucumber prefix is not known. "Big" John located, on one hundred and sixty acres on the southwest corner of section 2. His first wife died childless, and he had only one child by his second wife, a daughter of a neighbor, Brubaker. "Big" John, whose weight is handed down as three hundred pounds, finally went West, where there was more room, and died. Philip, the brother of "Big" John, entered the southeast corner of section 2, built a log cabin and was one of the first settlers of the township to boast of having glass in his window he had one four light window. He died in 1837 and lies buried on the farm he entered, as does his wife. He left one daughter, Rebecca.

VICTIMS OF SMALLPDX SCOURGE.

Acory Berry, a son-in-law of Lewis Hanback, came from Shenandoah county, Virginia, to Johnson township in 1807. Berry and his wife came to the township shortly after their marriage and settled in township 6, where they entered half a section. They had four children, all born in the township, and all, if reports are to be trusted, destined to be carried off by the smallpox scourge which swept over the county in the forties.

The year following the arrival of Berry and his wife in the township his father-in-law, Lewis Hanback, came to Johnson township and entered one hundred and sixty acres on section 14, paying two dollars and twentyfive cents an acre. Hanback brought with him his wife, Barbara, and three children, and later three children were born in this township. Hanback served in the War of 1812 and while he was at the front one of the children was born and before he returned his faithful wife had cleared nearly three acres of ground.

Philip Comer arrived in 1808 from Shenandoah county, Virginia, on a prospecting trip and decided to buy the Silas Johnson farm, which the latter left because the government appraised it at eight dollars an acre. Between the time that Johnson left it and Corner applied for a patent it had depreciated to four dollars an acre and this was all it cost Comer. He entered it in the fall of 1808 and in the following spring put out twelve acres of corn. In the fall of that year he returned to Virginia and sent his son, David, back to harvest the corn. David harvested the crop in the fall of 1809, remained in the county all winter, clearing in the meantime about five acres, and in the spring of 1810 planted the whole third tract into corn. In that spring Philip Comer returned to the West and this time he brought with him his wife and his other children - Martin, Peter, Joseph, Reuben, Catherine, Barbara, Lizzie, Susan and Rebecca. The family lived west of Millerstown, Reuben being the last to survive. He survived until nearly his ninetieth birthday, passing his declining days on the old homestead a mile west of Millerstown.

PIONEER CONDITIONS.

It seems to the present generation impossible for people to have lived as our forefathers had to live. The fact of the matter is that they probably lived just as happy and contented lives as we of today, and could they be permitted to spend a few weeks with us in our modern homes and be compelled to participate in all the many things which make up our modern complex life, they would prefer to return to the simple life they enjoyed a century ago. Take the case of the Silas Johnson family of a hundred years ago, or the Comer family which later settled on the Johnson farm.

The Johnsons had "deadened", as they called it, about fifteen acres, and Comer's son, David, added probably as much more, so that when the large family of Comers arrived on the scene things were in shape to start at once to farming. The long trip from Virginia consumed four weeks and four days and they made the journey in better time than any of the Virginians who had thus far come to the county. This notwithstanding the fact that they had a large five horse wagon. There were still plenty of friendly Indians in the neighborhood, and some of them were present when the family arrived. The Comer farm was the site of a former Indian village and thirteen Indian huts were still standing when the Corners appeared on the scene in the spring of 1810. There were other huts in a dilapidated condition, but thirteen were still in a good state of preservation. They were made of small elm poles, stacked up in somewhat the same fashion that the first settlers made corn cribs, the whole surmounted by a bark covering for a roof. The Indians called this village of their Nettleton, the name being suggested by the nettles which grew everywhere in lavish profusion.

A GOOD INDIAN STORY.

So many stories have been handed down concerning these early settlers that a volume could easily be written about their varied experiences. One Indian story of Silas Johnson and two of his sons is worth repeating. About sundown one evening Silas Johnson and two sons were grouped around the fire in the woods cooking their meager supper, when a couple of Indians approached them and began talking in a loud and threatening manner. The Indians were indignant to find the whites encroaching upon what they thought was their hunting grounds, although they were perfectly aware that all the territory in Champaign county had been bought from the Indians and that they had no right to contest the title. But there was no telling what an Indian might do. In the midst of the heated harangue of the Indians, Johnson thought that one of the Indians was casting his eye toward his (Johnson's) gun, and instantly Johnson made a dive for his gun and at the same instant the agile Indian did the same. Johnson got the gun and the next instant pointed it at the Indian. Just as he was about to pull the trigger, he hesitated, thinking that it might be better to spare his life. Then like a flash he conceived the notion of disposing of the Indian temporarily by giving him a sound whack over the head with the gun. This he did and the Indian promptly laid down in his tracks, while the other Indian just looked on and grinned. It was a way the Indians had of doing things. Strange to say the Indian who was thus suddenly laid out and down, had nothing to say when he recovered his wits - just got up and walked away. And the Johnsons had no more trouble with those Indians.

SMALLPDX CLAIMS MANY PIONEERS.

When the Comers arrived in the spring of 1810 Adam Hite was already settled on an adjoining section with his family. Peter Smith had also found a home in the neighborhood, and it was at his house that Philip Comer stayed when he was making his prospecting trip to the county. Philip Comer died in 1824 and he and his wife and several of the children are buried on the old Comer farm, the family cemetery being about a mile northwest of the present village of Millerstown.

When the Comers came in the spring of 1810 the families of Jacob Maggart and Jacob Judy came with them, Maggart entering on section 7, where he reared a family of five children, Moses, Adam, David, Elizabeth and Jane. Maggart seems to have been the first one in the community to have died with the smallpox, and following his death with the dread disease, several in the county succumbed to the scourge. Acory Berry buried Maggart and was in turn soon to be buried of the same disease and shortly after practically the whole Berry family was wiped out with the smallpox.

A TRANSPLANTED VIRGINIA COMMUNITY.

It is an interesting study in local history to follow the early settlers back to their native states. A study, for instance, of Johnson township would show that when a group of settlers from any Virginia county once got settled in Champaign county, that the next few years would see many more coming from the same locality and making their homes in this county. Thus it was with the community in Shenandoah county, Virginia. The Comers, the Judys, the Maggarts, and others came one after the other, singly and in groups, and thus the little community around Millerstown in Champaign county was nothing more than a transplanted Virginia community.

It was from the same Virginia county that Joseph Kizer came in 1811. He was probably a relative of one of the families already in the Nettle creek valley; at least, he was one of their neighbors in the old Dominion state. He came with his wife and two children and entered a tract near Millerstown, in section 2. He was the first justice of peace in the township and according to some authorities it was his defeat of Silas Johnson for the office in 1816 that led the latter to forsake the township bearing his name and cast his lot with Adams township to the north. At any rate Johnson did leave, whatever the cause may have been and this furnishes a plausible, if not the real reason for his hegira.

SQUIRE KIZER AND "OLD SIMON."

Kizer was one of the most influential citizens of the township for many years; he was a justice of the peace continuously until 1827; he reared a large family to lives of usefulness; all records concerning his life in the township until his death in 1869 bespeak his worthiness. Along with the account of this worthy pioneer should be mentioned his old horse, affectionately known as "Old Simon", the horse which carried him back and forth to and from his old Virginia home. This faithful horse lived to the advanced age of thirty three and at his death was buried with all the equine honors due his distinguished career.

The year 1812 saw more of Virginia's sons coming to Champaign county. Louis Lyons, his wife, Mary, and two children, came to the township in that year and located on the quarter section lately owned by Isaac Good. David and Jeremiah Huffman arrived from Virginia in 1813 and located in section 18, including the present site of St. Paris. David Huffman had six children who married and settled in Johnson township: John, Julia, Samuel, Mary, Jacob and Reuben.

In 1815 Samuel Brubaker, the first of the numerous representatives of this family in the county, came to Johnson township and located north of Millerstown in the same two cabins which had been built by Silas Johnson. Samuel was a son-in-law of Comer and when he came to the county had five children, Isaac, Jacob, Mary, Daniel and Rebecca.

Other early settlers in the eastern part of the township included the following: David and Harry Long, Virginians, who settled along Mosquito creek; Frederick Pence, also from Virginia, who located in section 15; Christian Morah, who seems to have been in the Nettle creek valley with his family as early as 1805, but he must have soon left, since there were no records left of the family a few years later; David Campbell, a son of John and Magdalene Campbell, a native of Virginia, came to Johnson township and located in section 7, having previously lived with his parents in Warren county, Ohio. Campbell married Catherine Kesler and they reared a family of seven daughters and four sons.

It will be noticed that all of the settlers thus far enumerated located in the eastern and southern part of the township, and this may be explained because of its closer proximity to the county seat and for the fact that the western part of the township was swampy and without roads. When land was from one dollar and twenty five cents to two dollars and twenty five cents an acre and there was plenty of it, a shrewd Yankee was not going to take a wet piece of ground and try to make a living on it. He did not care to bother draining it, but the land which our forefathers looked on with contempt a century ago and even half that many years ago, is now the best farming land in Champaign county.

FIRST COMMERCIAL CENTER IN JOHNSON TOWNSHIP.

These good settlers of the Millerstown vicinity had to have a few commodities brought in; not very many, but still a few. They had to have salt, powder, shot, a little calico and a very few other articles. Someone had to keep a store and someone must perforce start a mill. These two institutions were absolutely essential. Thus it came to pass that a settler answering to the name of Shrofe had the first store. Just what he kept in stock, we do not know, but he was a very necessary adjunct to the life of the community. His little shop was in one of the log houses built by old pioneer, Silas Johnson. He had to haul his goods in and it is no stretch of the imagination to picture the inside of his little store - the few shelves, the few barrels, the few boxes. The odor of various and sundry pelts and furs permeated the atmosphere, and some of these odors were very unlike the perfume which has made Arabia famous. This Shrofe, or at least a man by that name, had a vision to the effect that a village, probably a city, might be built in the eastern part of Johnson township. To put his vision into execution was an easy thing.

Thus was the village of Elliott born - one of the several "dream" towns of Champaign county. As early as 1835 the Mt. Pleasant Baptist church had been established in about the center of section 20 and it was surrounding the church that Shrofe conceived the idea of building his village. It is a matter of local tradition that he went so far as to have the ground surveyed and laid out into lots, but an examination of the deed records shows that such a man never owned any land in section 20, nor is there any record of a town by the name of Elliott being laid out in this or any other section of the township.

FIRST MILL IN TOWNSHIP.

The first grist mill used by the settlers of Johnson township was located in Concord township and was opened by John Norman on Nettle creek. It was a crude water power mill, capable of only a limited daily output. In later years mills were established in sections 26, 34, 15 and 24 in Johnson township and in the towns of Millerstown and St. Paris. The sawmill in section 26 was owned by Elisha C. Berry, one of the most prominent of the early citizens in the township and county, and the grandfather of Lou B. Berry, the present county treasurer. David Berry operated a carding machine as early as 1827 and undoubtedly found plenty to do, but it took so much of his time that he disposed of it to a man by the name of Ford. The first grist mill appeared about 1823 on the farm of William Hill, near where Mosquito creek widened out into what was formerly called Mosquito lake. The first saw mill was built by Henry Long in 1820 on Mosquito creek near the lake and was the only water power mill in the northern part in the township. The first steam saw mill in the township was built by Samuel McCord, a resident of Urbana at the time, and stood along the railroad track about a mile west of St. Paris. A saw mill was in operation at Millerstown shortly after the town was platted, established by one of the sons of Elisha Berry and later operated by the firm of Berry & Weller.

SCHOOLS AND CHURCHES.

The history of the schools and churches of the township may be found in other chapters. It may be mentioned that the first school house in the township was erected in 1817 on the Zerkle farm, and was a round log building, eighteen by twenty feet, and as meagerly equipped as were all the early school houses. Section 16 in this township was probably as wet and swampy as any in it and consequently no one wanted to buy it. It could not be farmed and hence could not be rented. Therefore the township derived no revenue at all from a tract which was supposed to bring sufficient money when sold to build at least three school houses, or, if rented, to yield sufficient annual income to support one school. The township finally sold the section and the proceeds were placed in the school fund. As the township grew in numbers additional school districts were added and by the seventies there were nine school districts with as many different buildings.

The first church in the township was erected in section I in 1821 on the site later occupied by a school house. This church was a union building, erected through the joint efforts of the Lutherans and the German Reformed church, the official title of the new congregation being known as the "Salem Lutheran and Reformed Union Church." This was a log building and was used for religious purposes until 1842 when a frame church was built, again by the joint congegations. The second church was moved to the forks of the road in the southwestern part of section I, on the site later occupied by a school building. About a year or two later the two congregations finally decided to part their ways. The result was that the Reformed branch had to leave and were compelled to erect a new building. The congregation maintained its organization until 1865 when it ceased its activities and joined in establishing another congregation in St. Paris. At the present time there are only two churches outside of St. Paris, with six churches in that city, and two in Millerstown.

MILLERSTOWN.

The village of Millerstown, located in the center of section 2, along the eastern side of Johnson township, was surveyed by John Arrowsmith for John and Charles C. Miller, cousins and proprietors. The original plat contained thirty two lots and was recorded on April 14, 1837. Five successive additions have been made to the original plat: Two lots on December 2, 1837, by C. C. Miller; six out lots on November 10, 1846; by Abraham S. Stuck; one lot on March I, 1848, by Jacob Miller; two lots on April 8, 1853, by Jacob Miller and Jacob Ammon, and one lot on September 9, 1856, by Jacob Miller.

The little village has never aspired to he more than a mere village; a few houses, a few stores, a shop or two, a church or two, a school house - these constitute all that the village has ever been or ever hopes to be. The first storekeeper was Charles Miller, one of the proprietors, the owner of the first house in the village and the first to open a store and tavern. The village is not as prosperous today as it was years ago, when it contained as many as three general stores, two blacksmith shops, two shoe shops, a saw mill, a hotel, two regular churches and more than two. hundred inhabitants.

Just eighty years have elapsed since the Millers launched their town and these four score years have seen more than a score of merchants come and go. The names of only a few of these have been preserved, although some of them used that commodity of commerce which is well known for its preserving qualities.

As early as 1868 John C. Norman and Isaac Comer formed a partnership for merchandising and continued together until in the eighties. Peter Berry opened his saw mill for operation in 1858 and for many years had the only mill in the eastern part of the township. J. W. Weller was associated with Berry in business in the seventies. In 1878 G. M. Minnich started a general store which he conducted for a number of years. In June, 1880, S. D. Harmon opened the first drug store in the village and did a flourishing business for several years. J. M. Abbott began blacksmithing in 1871 and usually had a partner associated with him in the business. Abbott also sold agricultural implements in addition to carrying on his regular trade. D. J. Corner and D. M. Whitmer were the physicians during the seventies and eighties.

There are two stores in Millerstown in 1917. One is operated by C. N. Pence & Company and the other by Morton Moore. The Zerkle saw mill was in operation for a number of years, but it has been closed down for several years.


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