“Sufferers’ Land” Post #44 – Life in Norwalk in the 1840’s –

In the mid-1840s, Norwalk was a vibrant village with over a thousand inhabitants. A sandy road, now called Main Street, ran along the ridge. Clouds of dust often filled the air, kicked up by long trains of Conestoga wagons carrying grain from the wheat fields south of town to the canal port at Milan. The other streets of the village were only alleys bisecting the main road between houses and businesses. Much of the town was still farmland, and many of the inhabitants were farmers.

A favorite gathering place of the time was on the “stoop” of Jenney’s tavern, owned by Colonel Obadiah Jenney, a long time business partner of Platt Benedict. Here residents would meet to gossip and do business. People also watched the fire company drilling with their waterpumper, or witnessed a game of “long ball” or an early form of baseball played on the square across the street. If so inclined, they could purchase liquid refreshment inside the tavern, or have cool water free from the town pump.

Town pumps were plentiful in Norwalk, and were popular gathering places, and opportunities for a bit of fun. Lucy Wickham’s second son William recalled years later how a gang of boys captured one of the town drunks, and threw him into a trough. William was upset to see this man humiliated, but he noted that the experience had a good effect on the man, as he remained sober the rest of his life. [1]

In 1845, Dave and Fanny Benedict were living in their father’s house on Seminary Street. They had lost their mother five years before and their sister Mary recently and had to cope with their stepmother Caroline, whom Jonas Benedict married in 1843. Caroline did not like Dave and Fanny, and made their lives miserable.

David & Fanny Benedict

David & Fanny Benedict

A portrait from mid-1840 shows two attractive young people. Dave had the soft features and gentle expression of his father. Fanny had a pleasing almond shaped face and large expressive eyes. They sit close together. Fanny’s head rests on her brother’s shoulder.


Among Dave Benedict’s friends in the 1840’s was his cousin Caleb Gallup, known to his friends as “Caley.” They attended Norwalk Academy together, which at the time attracted boys and girls from around the Firelands.

Some of the boys attending the academy played pranks on unsuspecting teachers and passers-by. One evening, they caught an old horse and brought it to the school. They lowered the bell rope down from the cupola on the roof and attached it to the horse’s neck, fastening it so the bell rang when the horse dropped its head to eat from a bag of oats. Every time the bell rang, a teacher who slept in the building went to the cupola, but could not find what was causing it.

On another occasion, a wood seller left his cart overnight near the academy. When he returned the following morning, he found it and its load of wood on the academy roof. [2]

Dave may or may not have been involved in those pranks, but he did have a wild streak, perhaps provoked by his stepmother’s treatment of him and his sister Fanny, or because of the lack of accomplishment of his father, or maybe just because he was a teenager. In any event, in 1846, he was a leader of a prank that caused a lot of trouble.

On the Fourth of July, he and his friends fired a cannon shot down Main Street. The blast damaged a barbershop belonging to Robert Shipley, whose bad temper had made him an enemy of many village boys.

Dave left town immediately. When his father learned that he was behind the prank, he quietly paid Mr. Shipley for the damage, then sent word through a friend to Dave that the problem was taken care of, although he didn’t want Dave to know he was involved. [3]

Life in Norwalk was pleasant in those days. The early settlers had cleared the land and started businesses. Now they were reaping the harvest of their labors from the fertile farms and villages they had carved out of the wilderness. However, at the end of the decade, Cholera returned, bringing terror and death.

Thanks for visiting! Share and like this post below, and on Facebook. Let me know what you think in the comments. I’d love to hear from you!


GO TO NEXT POST – Cholera Strikes Again

Index of Posts


[1] Description of life in Norwalk from 1840-1850 is from “Norwalk, Men, Women & Girls,” by William Wickham, The Firelands Pioneer, December 1918, pp. 2073-2077.

[2] Stories of pranks by students of the Norwalk Academy are from “Norwalk, Its Men, Women and Girls,” by William Wickham, The Firelands Pioneer, December 1918, p. 2129.

[3] The story of this prank gone awry is from The Firelands Pioneer, December 1902, p. 923-924 & an undated note by Harriott Benedict Wickham Barton in the possession of the author.

© 2009 by David W. Barton. All rights reserved


“Sufferers’ Land” Post #10 – A Village is Born on the Sand Ridge

That fall, Captain Enos Gilbert and his family arrived in Norwalk. They bought the unfinished house started by Amos Abbott, and, until it was finished, lived in a shanty workers had constructed while making bricks for Platt. The court met while the Gilberts were still in the shanty, and they boarded several members of the court there. The rest of the court stayed with the Benedicts or with David and Mary Underhill in their house a few miles to the west in Ridgefield Township. The Benedict house was so crowded that the boarders lay spoon fashion on the floor. Even then, there was not enough room for everyone and one of the lawyers slept sitting in a chair.

Soon after the court met, Enos Gilbert finished his house and several other settlers moved onto the ridge. In October, a young woman passing through the village on her way to David and Laura Underhill’s homestead saw but a few buildings – one store, two or three dwelling houses, an unfinished court house, and a tavern, consisting of three or four rooms below, and a place to dance above. It was kept by Enos Gilbert. [1]

The rest of that year and early in 1819, new settlers moved onto the sand ridge, building houses and stores in the settlement.
Businesses also started on the outskirts of town. A gristmill was erected on Reed’s Creek, one and three-quarters miles south of the village, and Platt and a settler named Obadiah Jenney built a sawmill a half mile south of town. Captain Peter Tice started a distillery just south of where the Courthouse is now. These three industries were essential to the new settlement. The sawmill made lumber out of logs and the gristmill and distillery turned corn into a marketable commodity.

That summer, Platt built a two story house in front of the cabin, using the brick he had had made the previous year. In July, he became Postmaster for Norwalk, and established the Post Office in his new home. The first mailbag he received contained only a single letter. [2]

Now the Benedict home would be the center of the social and business life of the community, the place where settlers in the village and nearby farms would stop for mail and news of the village and the outside world.

The town continued to grow. All the trades and businesses required to support the court and those who worked in it arrived — Druggist, Jeweler, Tavern Keeper, Baker, Carpenters and Joiners, Master Masons, Tanners, Couriers, Shoemaker, Cabinet maker, Hatter, Saddler and Harness maker. [3]

Around 1820, the first school in the village of Norwalk began in the shanty on Platt and Sally’s property, built two years before by the workers who made bricks for their new house. Eight or ten students attended, including Jonas and Eliza Ann Benedict. [4]

That same year, a man passing through town reported that Norwalk village was small, but appeared thriving, with one or two stores doing a fair business. Enos Gilbert, afterwards Sheriff, kept tavern in the frame building since occupied as a hotel by Obadiah Jenney, and now standing next west of Whittlesey block. – There was no church building. The houses were all on Main Street, and north of that was low, marshy ground with no settlers on it. Natural trees, chiefly oaks, were growing in Main Street, and after passing the center of the village the track became very narrow, worming among the trees. [5]

Norwalk had become a thriving village, but the level of growth Platt and Sally dreamed of had not materialized. After the initial burst of immigration, the flow of settlers dwindled as people bypassed the Firelands for lands further west.

Years later, an early settler explained what happened. About the time of the first settlements in this vicinity, in consequence of the favorable reports which the few who had got into the country made to their friends east to encourage them hither, the land owners got the impression that there was a great speculation to be made in their lands, they at once put them up to about double the price of government lands, and the result was to push the tide of emigration still farther West, where they could get lands for the sum of ten shillings per acre; this could be done by crossing the county line West into Seneca and Sandusky counties, yet the crowd was for Michigan. [6]

Norwalk would not grow as fast as Platt and Sally had hoped, at least not yet. For the time being, they would continue to grow their businesses as best they could, adapting to life on the frontier, and turning the little village on the sand ridge into a civilized town.

Please like this post and let me know what you think in the comments. Thank you.

GO TO NEXT POST – Women’s Life on the Frontier

Index of Posts

[1] “Scattered Sheaves – No. 4, by Ruth – Maj. Underhill”, The Firelands Pioneer, September, 1860, p. 43.
[2] Descriptions of the first few years in Norwalk are from “Memoirs of Townships – Norwalk,” by Platt Benedict, The Firelands Pioneer, May 1859, p. 20.
[3] “Memoirs of Townships – Portland,” by F.D. Parish, The Firelands Pioneer, March 1859, p. 21.
[4] “Memoirs of Townships – Norwalk,” by Platt Benedict, The Firelands Pioneer, May 1859, p. 21.
[5] “A Journey from New England to the Firelands 55 Years Ago,” The Firelands Pioneer, October 1874, p. 88.
[6] “Memoirs of Townships – Fitchville, by J.C. Curtis, Esq., The Firelands Pioneer, May 1859, p. 33.

© 2009 by David W. Barton. All rights reserved

%d bloggers like this: