Our Towns: Canfield Takes Pride in Its Roots

CANFIELD, Ohio — On Sept. 19, 1798, Secretary of War James McHenry tucked into a lengthy letter to President George Washington a reminder that contained a short list of names he thought were in line for a military promotion.

Jeremiah Olney, Henry Sherburne and William Peck of Rhode Island made the list. So did Henry Dearborne and Nicholas Gilman of New Hampshire. Last, McHenry recommended to Washington that Elijah Wadsworth of Litchfield, Conn., be considered for the rank of major.

Wadsworth didn’t get the promotion, instead turning his attention to business affairs as a land speculator in the Connecticut Western Reserve. In 1802, after three years of surveying the region, he decided to plant roots in Canfield, a small town established just four years earlier.

“We have a plaque honoring him,” says Doris Cavanaugh, a member of the Canfield Historical Society. Wadsworth, she says, figures prominently in the history of this region. As a volunteer during the American Revolution, Wadsworth saw action against the British, serving under Capt. Benjamin Tallmadge in Col. Elisha Sheldon’s regiment of light dragoons. Then, in 1780, Wadsworth was stationed at West Point when American officers arrested Maj. John Andre, the infamous British intelligence officer who conspired with American Gen. Benedict Arnold to surrender the garrison. Andre was placed in Wadsworth’s custody shortly before the spy was hanged Oct. 2, 1780.

The marker that honors Wadsworth is easy to miss – it’s on the village green where U.S. Route 224 bisects the city – although the house he constructed in 1802 still stands along South Broad Street, Cavanaugh says. Indeed, many of the older houses remain well preserved, sustaining the hometown historic appeal of Canfield.

Wadsworth went on in 1803 to serve as postmaster of Canfield, establishing the first postal routes in the Western Reserve. He was elected by the Ohio Legislature in 1804 as major general of the Ohio militia’s 4th Division, which encompassed Trumbull, Columbiana and Jefferson counties. Mahoning County wasn’t established until 1846.

According to the Western Reserve Historical Society, where Wadsworth’s papers are stored, his role increased considerably during the War of 1812. That August, the British took control of Detroit, leaving all of northwestern Ohio open to invasion. Wadsworth, along with a support regiment from Canfield, relocated to Cleveland and then raised 1,500 additional troops to help William Henry Harrison’s northwestern army.

Wadsworth fell deeply into debt during the war because he personally covered a substantial portion of the militia’s pay and supplies. In a letter to President James Madison dated May 24, 1813, Wadsworth complains of appealing to the district paymaster, a Mr. Huntington, to compensate those officers and men who went unpaid because of bureaucratic ineptitude.

“He has refused,” Wadsworth wrote to Madison of the Huntington matter, noting, “By this neglect much dissatisfaction has arisen among the militia on the frontiers.” When Wadsworth died in 1817, he had incurred personal debts of more than $26,500, mostly derived from his personal financial sacrifice to pay his troops. The government discharged the debt, but not until 1825.

Cavanaugh says the history society has many artifacts and archives related to Canfield’s most prominent people. “This is one of our treasures,” she says, pointing to a framed document on the wall. The document is an order President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward signed that appointed Canfield attorney and former congressman Elisha Whittlesey as first comptroller of the U.S. Treasury after the Senate ratified his nomination.

Whittlesey had already achieved prominence in the community, Cavanaugh says. He first worked as an adjutant to Wadsworth during the War of 1812 and then with Gen. Harrison. He opened a law practice in Canfield, served two terms in the Ohio General Assembly, served from 1823 to 1838 in the U.S. House of Representatives and served Presidents Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore and Franklin Pierce as first comptroller. Lincoln reappointed him in 1861.

On March 11, 1862, Lincoln took a few moments to dash a quick memo to Whittlesey, requesting that he personally double-check accounts that originated in the Executive Mansion. “Once or twice since I have been in this [White] House, accounts have been presented at your bureau, which were incorrect. I shall be personally obliged to you if you will carefully scan any account which comes from here; and if in any there shall appear the least semblance wrong, make it known to me directly.”

Whittlesey’s law office is today preserved and part of Pioneer Village, which is managed by the Canfield Fairgrounds, Cavanaugh says.

The Canfield Historical Society oversees two properties within the city, the Bond House, built in 1839 by Elijah Bond that serves as offices for the history society, and the former Mahoning Dispatch newspaper building, built in 1865.

The Mahoning Dispatch was a weekly newspaper Henry Fowler founded in 1877 and ceased publication in 1968. Since then, the building at 23 S. Broad St. has served as a living museum of old-school journalism, replete with a linotype machine and antique presses. A general store occupied the building before The Dispatch.

“There aren’t many people who know how to work these,” Cavanaugh says as she points to the linotype.

Every edition of the Dispatch is preserved in storage upstairs, Cavanaugh says. The next step is to scan and digitize each copy and maintain the entire archive in perpetuity. “All the old editions will be scanned and then put in Mylar,” she notes. Other documents housed in the history society building should also be digitized once the organization purchases its new scanner. “We’ve partnered with the Ellsworth Historical Society to buy one,” Cavanaugh says.

She can trace her ancestors in Canfield back to 1820, the amateur historian notes. Her husband, Frank, moved to the town in 1935. Both remember what life was like those years when Canfield was still a very sleepy crossroads in a farming community. “Canfield was a town of 600 people,” she laughs. “You knew everybody, and we had to go to the post office for our mail.”

“It started to change after the war,” Frank recalls. Development and the flight to the suburbs continued to slowly build in the wake of World War II as housing plats were created and families moved in.

Today, zoning ordinances are in place that preserve the historical integrity the city, Cavanaugh says. “There’s a balance, and the community is very supportive.”

Pictured: Frank and Doris Cavanaugh, members of the Canfield Historical Society, stand in front of the Mahoning Dispatch building.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.