Historic Roscoe Village in Coshocton, Ohio
This is a story of resurgence for a bustling canal town that fell into ruin and has since reclaimed its glory days.
The tale begins with a massacre and a girl who would grow to be known as the “White Woman.” This journey spans two eras of a community separated by a century. Both echo out with the sounds of molten metal being pounded into form, a helmsman shouting to a hoggee, a school bell ringing, and merchants asking, “How may I help you?” Both are known as Roscoe Village. Today, they coexist at a crossroads in time, ready to serve visitors with authentic goods, services, tours, meals, and unforgettable experiences.
But what makes a community sprout along the water’s edge or grow up among the trees of a forest? At first, it may be nothing more than a gathering place in an open space where nearby settlers, scattered about the frontier, can bring goods to exchange or services to offer. And so a market is born. Then it may grow into a transportation hub where the abundance of goods are shipped beyond the community to other towns and regions in a network of trade.
Well, New York City wanted what was from the wilderness to the west – Ohio country! And this western frontier wanted what was from the east. So came the Ohio & Erie Canal to inject an artery that would feed the wants and needs of the east and west much more fluidly than horse and wagon trails. In fact, eastern goods were reduced by as much as 80 percent. And Ohio’s product values rose because they were introduced to new markets, creating increased demand. Across Ohio’s frontier, canal towns sprouted across its fertile landscape, and America had a growth spurt.
Now, about that “White Woman.”
“Mary Harris was captured by Indians in the Deerfield Village Massacre of 1704,” said Alice M. Hoover, a volunteer historian at Roscoe Village. “Some 200 Indians and about 40 French marched their 112 English captives 300 miles to Canada.”
Harris was a 10-year-old servant girl who eventually married a Mohawk brave amongst a small community of Jesuits and praying Indians outside Montreal. In the 1740s, Harris, and others came to Ohio and settled. Perhaps the reason was for fur trading, as Harris practiced her husband’s customs.
“The forest was the Indians’ grocery store,” Hoover smiled.
This settlement became known as “White Woman Town” in honor of Harris. It was on the bank of today’s Walhonding River, which was previously known as White Woman Creek. This was a mere five miles downriver of Caldersburgh, which was renamed Roscoe Village in 1831 to honor an English Abolitionist poet – William S. Roscoe. The adjacent city of Coshocton annexed Roscoe Village in the 1950s, but both towns had a Main Street, so Roscoe’s was renamed “White Woman Street.” And it is so even today.
After the canal was dug 309 miles from Cleveland to Portsmouth, Roscoe Village would become a great wheat exporter. In 1830, the first canal boat to arrive in early Roscoe Village (Caldersburgh) was the original Monticello. The Monticello II served tourism needs from 1971 – 1989 along a mile-long stretch of the canal that had been restored. And the historically accurate Monticello III has been running ever since the summer of 1990. It is 74 feet long and carries 125 passengers.
Life on the towpath is relived through canal boat rides along a preserved section of the Ohio & Erie Canal aboard the Monticello III. This authentic canal boat is powered by two horses guided by a person known as a hoggee. The vessel itself is steered by the helmsmen tending to the tiller at the bow. Together, it all moves smoothly through the serene woodlands as the captain spins the most interesting tales describing the bygone era. Unlike the rest of the Village, the canal boat is not available year-round. It is available Memorial Day through Labor Day and during the fall Apple Butter Stirrin’ Festival.
Locks were used to raise or lower canal boats to compensate for the new level of water they must travel in the next leg of the journey. This is a section of the canal closed off by gates in which the water level was raised or lowered before the boat continued through the other side of the lock’s gates. Locks are generally made of stone, and there were 146 locks to maneuver from Portsmouth to Cleveland. Roscoe Village has two sets of locks. Lock 26 and 27, known as double locks, are seen on the trail between Roscoe Village and the Monticello III landing in Coshocton Lake Park. This ruin is on dry land now, so you can walk through it. The other set of locks are known as Triple Locks 1, 2, and 3 and are on the west end of the Lower Roscoe Basin. These restored stone structures are modern-day ruins.
“Arnold Medberry was the mover and shaker of Roscoe Village during the canal’s heyday,” Hoover explained. “He owned a sawmill, flour mill, wood planing mill, a hotel, and other interests, including the big Empire Mill at the Triple Locks. These impressive and rare locks are restored and seen today across from the Visitor Center at Coshocton Lake Park.”
Roscoe flourished as the fourth largest port in Ohio, trading wheat, flour, corn, coal, pork, beef, lumber, glass, salt, and other staples of life. Meeting this demand largely were the mills and businesses owned by Medberry. Today’s Medberry Marketplace – a three-story brick building with a wrought iron balcony – was originally the Roscoe Hotel that opened in July of 1856 after an original wood structure burned down.
“There’s a suspicious pit under the floor thought to have been used to hide slaves, serving as a stop on the Underground Railroad,” Hoover said. “The hotel was also a stagecoach stop.”
When you walk inside now, it’s an old-world marketplace with a gourmet deli and café. The deli serves meats and cheeses fresh from nearby Amish country. You are bound to be greeted by its manager, Terry Hill. You’ll find her very cordial and accommodating. And she’s a wealth of information about the area and happenings.
Around the time the hotel was up and running, so too were the railroads.
Canal towns felt the impact because trains could carry much more to market and do it much faster than a canal boat which topped out at a brisk walking pace. Oh, and there’s the fact that winter’s frozen waters posed little or no slowdown for these iron horses steaming here and there and everywhere.
“Still, the canal operated albeit at a fraction of the capacity it once had,” Hoover continued. “But around 1912 and 1913, it would meet its final demise almost instantaneously.”
First came a series of arson-related fires. There were also mill fires and natural fires. Together, coupled with the close proximity many buildings stood to one another, fires grew out of control despite the efforts of local bucket brigades. Bucket brigades were nothing more than people lined in a row relaying buckets of water from a water source to the fire and back again. Ironically, too much water would prove to be the final death knell to the Ohio & Erie Canal. For in the spring of 1913, a mass flood washed out canal locks, basins, aqueducts, towpaths, and so on. It would simply be too expensive to rebuild because the return on investment would be far from worth it.
Thus, Roscoe Village and other canal towns lost their livelihood and fell into disrepair as the years moved on. Mr. Medberry made a final trip to New York in 1861 aboard a canal boat. And as fate would have it, he fell sick, returned, and a month later, he died. His holdings were auctioned off, but as it was on the eve of the Civil War, this returned pennies on the dollar. His estate was left in financial ruin. However, his widow, Phebe, had an inheritance from her grandfather, Mathias Denman. She paid off Arnold’s debts so that his name would not be besmirched.
One hundred years later, in 1961, Coshocton would celebrate its Centennial.
An artist – Dean Cornwell – was hired to capture its history in a painting. So he sought inspiration by walking around the area. That’s when he came across the Roscoe ruins. But in his mind, he saw what was a thriving canal town rather than the squalor it had become. His original canvas was recreated as a mural on the wall of Coshocton’s national bank. Later, the same mural would grace the main wall upon entering the Roscoe Village Visitor Center.
This piece of art paid it forward, further inspiring a modern-day mover and shaker in the community.
Edward Montgomery and his wife, Frances, looked at the mural and decided how wonderful it would be to revitalize Roscoe Village to its peak condition.
“It triggered Edward’s childhood memory of the great 1913 flood when he spent his formative years in Coshocton,” Hoover said. “He remembered the disarray it left in the canal system.”
Their vision was helped by a recent trip the couple took to visit Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. The timing was perfect. Edward was looking to retire from the successful venture he started during The Great Depression when he innovated the use of latex over fabric gloves. He now wanted to enjoy a project he and Frances could do together. Their new passion was embraced by the community. So in 1968, their first restoration was of the Toll House. For their remaining decades, the couple toiled together, helping to bring splendor back to the Village.
The Toll House is a little red brick home with white trim and a quaint porch. The first recorded toll collector of the Village originally lived here when it was built in 1840. Today, upstairs of the Toll House, there are interactive videos sharing the restoration history of any building in the Village. The main floor has crafted items for sale.
Frances Montgomery planted a garden at this house using many of her favorite plants from her home. This garden would awaken a green thumb across the Village in the coming years. Pocket gardens would sprout up in just about any nook and cranny dotting the landscape. Pocket gardens, also known as cottage gardens, are planted in small spaces along a curb, between buildings, and in more imaginative places.
An avid gardener, Frances had a hand in most of the tiny gardens seen today. To her tribute, the Visitor Center created a grand garden and named it the Frances B. Montgomery Memorial Garden. It includes all of the little touches she left throughout the Village’s pocket gardens, such as incorporating stones into the landscape among her favorite trees and blossoms. It has become a popular wedding site in which to shoot exquisite photographs.
Perhaps the most fun window into Yesteryear is in the cellar of the Toll House. When you walk down the old staircase, you hear the magic that awaits. Get ready for a real-life toy story that goes to infinity and beyond. The storyteller around the corner, winding up his favorite toys, is a smiling Richard Hoover. He’s there most weekends from 1:00 p.m. – 3:30 p.m., April – October. His eyes sparkle in the light every time he sees guests look with wonder at the enormous collection of vintage toys from the 1860s to the 1960s.
It feels like Christmas morning. And for the senior crew, you’ll hear the joy in the sound of, “I remember this one!”
But no matter your age, you’ll revel in the creativity and imagination these old toys generate. The Toy Cellar features gravity toys that had no batteries or springs, such as the peculiar contraptions that sent marbles rolling from high to low, flipping and moving things on their descent. Then there are the wind-up toys that spring into action like an airplane flying after a blimp around a lighthouse. Other delights have elements of wonder and surprise that you wish could find their way back into the toy chests of kids today. Unfortunately, these toys are on loan and not for sale.
The same year that the Montgomerys restored the Toll House, they tackled the much larger Warehouse. Arnold Medberry originally built this warehouse and mill store in 1838. It is one of the more interesting pieces of architecture in the Village. It features a distinct railroad tie that juts from the second-story brick and connects to a vertical beam holding up a large wooden cube with a painted sign that says Lock Twenty-Seven. Inside is the Lock 27 Pub and the Steak N Stein Restaurant where you’re likely to be greeted by Becky Prosek’s smile. It is definitely one of the focal points and meeting spots in the Village. And next to it is a splendid rustic outdoor patio for dining as well. The tall weathered wood fence ensures a world unto its own. Light bulbs are strung in the enormous Maple shade trees to illuminate the evening diners. It also has a stage for periodic entertainment during the summer months.
As you roam the Village, you are bound to come across ladies in old-fashioned dresses working in stores or out for a stroll. Men, too, are seen in attire that may cause a double-take because they look like they just stepped off a canal boat from another era.
Again, this journey spans two eras of a community separated by a century.
Let’s delve into the Mid-Nineteenth Century on the Living History Tour.
The Living History Tours take you all over Roscoe Village, but several places are of particular interest. You’ll see life in this old canal town come into focus, and if you’re lucky, you may even get your hands on some authentic experiences you’ll talk about all the way home.
So on that note, meet the Village Smitty!
It seems the town’s blacksmiths always work up hearty belly laughs while they cast a story or two over the noise of red-hot metal being forged into something useful between a hammer and anvil. Roscoe’s blacksmith shop dates back to 1889. It was renovated in 1978. Today, the weathered red wood exterior is peeling and bowing in the artistry of decay, fitting the calloused hands hard at work inside. Between the stories and the roar of the flame when it gets a big breath of air, visitors may be mesmerized, thinking they’ve entered a wrinkle in time.
Just down the red brick sidewalk, made wavy from tree roots, is the Hay Craft & Learning Center. Inside you are greeted by an enormous old printing press. This 1870s gem still works, and the printer there will demonstrate it and explain the ways of the old print shop. In an adjacent room, a broom squire will gather everyone around to see brooms made by hand. The process begins with what is called broomcorn.
Sometimes the skilled craftspeople of old may have had a mishap landing them at Dr. Maro Johnson’s office further down the red brick sidewalk. You can’t miss it. The stark white brick building is tucked between two red brick buildings. It was originally built in 1842. There, someone will explain the medical instruments and procedures of the Nineteenth Century. The good doctor’s house is just next door and has furnishings true of the 1830s. Costumed interpreters are happy to share the lifestyle of the family of six who lived there.
The doctor’s children likely studied together at the one-room schoolhouse just down the road. If you hear the school bell ringing, hurry up; you best not be late for class. On the other side of the door, you hear the creek of the worn wood floor. The teacher is at the head of the class, a wood-burning stove off to her side. The authentic wood and iron-made desks look like they are straight out of a Laura Ingalls Wilder story. Grab one and enjoy a lesson on what school entailed in the 1800s.
Let the lessons of the 1800s continue next door at the tiny red-brick Craftman’s House. It seems so much larger inside. Although it’s the oldest building in the Village, it’s the only one that isn’t a Village original. It was moved from a nearby location. This 1825 construction is where a weaver toiled at his craft. The backroom has a couple of large old looms. No doubt you’ll hear wood smacking together to tighten a weave. The front room looks like a pioneer could come home any minute to light a fire and take a seat at an old wood desk, feather pen and inkwell at hand, to write to a relative back east.
Now that you’ve seen others with their hands hard at work, it’s your turn to roll up those sleeves.
Back at the Visitor Center, you’ll find the Diorama Room. If you want to learn something, just ask Stacie Stein. She loves to help inquiring minds. This is where imaginations fly, and keepsakes by one’s own hand become proud souvenirs no matter your age. Since this is a canal town, a rope maker may be handy. Participants get to twist jute twine, hoping it’s strong enough to secure a canal boat to its moorings. Become a tin smith and learn the craft of tin punching and create a decorative ornament using a hammer and nail. Moonlight as a candlemaker and actually hand dip a wick into warm wax and voilà – a pair of candles. Use a slotted wood frame and yarn to weave a little something special or design a quilt square. Since canal life may have been hard, you have to make sure there’s still time for play. A simple top spinning could bring fun to just about anyone. Learn about canal-era games as you decorate your own Nineteenth Century wooden top.
The River Ridge Leather Company has modern-day tradespeople hard at work. Their workshop doubles as a store. The leather goods for sale are hand-crafted before your eyes using nothing but traditional tools and techniques of the trade. The friendly guy working on the other side of the counter with others is Dennis Knight. He knows his business so ask him anything.
If shopping for conversation starters is of interest to you, welcome to modern-day Roscoe Village, where ma and pop shops abound. As you walk about marveling at the wonderful architecture from one building to another, you will notice about a dozen places that offer novelties such as Annin flags, a winemakers cellar, antique books, handcrafted homewares, cottage-style accessories, jewelry, fresh-cut flowers, American bench-made furniture, and handcrafted acoustic guitars. Of course, there’s much more, but why spoil the adventure of exploring these historic buildings for the find of the century?
Perhaps the anchor store of the Village is the General Store. It sits in a central location across the stage area for special events. With a small third floor, it stands taller than the buildings around it. Even way back in 1870, it was a general store. Edward and Frances Montgomery restored this red brick landmark in 1971. If any place harkens to a bygone era, just walk inside. To the right are usually two ladies in canal-era dresses behind an aged wood counter. Above are lamps hanging down, along with the ceiling fans lazily circulating the air. But it’s the mammoth and ornate cash register that still rings up sales that is the crown jewel of this trip back in time.
During the canal era, there was another general store over at the William Roscoe Building. Today, it’s the Uncorked Wine Bar & Restaurant. This impressive three-story brick building with sidewalk seating was built in 1840. It’s a place where you’ll want to pause and take a load off over coffee or wine and a bite to eat. Another notable trip down memory lane is at Sweets and Treats. This old-fashioned candy shop has it all. From vintage favorites like a giant lollipop to hard-to-find pieces, you’ll delight in over a thousand confections.
Any day is a treat in the historic Roscoe Village. But there are a few times during the year when its spirits really dance.
During the fall apple butter festival, the chill of the night air beckons the call of Roscoe’s secrets. Seasoned storytellers will walk groups to places around the Village on so-called Spirit Tours. Listen closely to the Firebug story, and you’ll learn the haunting truth behind the rampant arson that helped end the canal era. The White Woman tale shares the gruesome details of the horrors Mary Harris experienced in her lifetime. Or how about Matilda Wade? She was murdered in a hotel basement doing laundry. When she was found, her head had been nearly chopped off. These are just some of the accounts you may dare to hear.
Did someone mention apple butter?
Pots of these are churned throughout the Village during its annual October Apple Butter Stirrin’ Festival. Artisans, crafters, and food vendors galore set up tents up and down White Woman Street. Apple Butter simmers in the crisp fall air. Live music has people dancing in the street. Everything is open, and the Village is never more alive with living history around every corner.
But if it’s the holiday spirit that calls, don’t miss an enchanting day and night like no other. Three dates every December are reserved for Christmas Candlelighting. Horse-drawn carriage rides are one way to experience the magic of the holidays. So too, are the multiple groups of carolers gathered on various street corners filling everyone’s heart with warmth …along with hot-mulled cider. But Christmas magic really appears with the evening stars. That’s when thousands of people gather in front of the General Store, candle in hand, and gaze toward the stage. A giant Christmas tree on a hillside towers overhead. When the flock sings the first verse of Silent Night, the Christmas tree lights up, and then a flame is passed from one candle to the next until the entire Village is alive with the sound of music flickering in the night.
With all its history, mystery, and intrigue, Roscoe Village is as it was – a mixed community of small shops, eateries, residential homes, and historic buildings with amazing architecture and stories to share. One of today’s more controversial stories is told in the Johnson-Humrickhouse Museum. It holds the controversial Newark Holy Stones. During the 1860s, these were discovered at the Newark, Ohio, Earthworks of Hopewell Indian culture. The stones are inscribed in Hebrew, begging the question, where did they come from?
“Historic Roscoe Village isn’t just any restored village,” smiled Alice M. Hoover. “Many restored villages are old farm villages, and you get that flavor. But canal history is an essential part of American history. Other places may have a canal boat ride but no village or a canal village with no locks. Roscoe has it all!”
Roscoe Village is open year-round. For more information, visit RoscoeVillage.com. If you are looking to experience the hub of the 1800s today, this is the place that rebuilt it, so you will come.
By Frank Rocco Satullo, Your Tour Guide to Fun!