Friday, July 23, 2021

Beams in My Home Town and Other Personal Stuff (Part 2)

 


The Tree of Life, by Hugh Nissenson, was published in 1985. It was a small sensation in Mansfield, Ohio, my home town, because it is set there around the period of the War of 1812. 

When I read it back then, I knew about Jacob Beam of Kentucky, ancestor to all the whiskey-making Beams, who according to family tradition was a miller and distiller, and sold his first barrel of whiskey in Kentucky in 1795.

As Nissenson's novel includes a character named Jacob Beam, I assumed the author had appropriated the name and profession of Kentucky's Jacob Beam, relocated him to Ohio, and created an otherwise entirely fictional character. My assumption was wrong. Although they cannot be the same person, Ohio’s Jacob Beam was just as real as the Kentucky one. He was a miller, as was Kentucky's Jacob, and Ohio's Jacob was most likely a distiller too. 

Beam's homestead and mill were about three miles southeast of Mansfield, on the Rocky Fork of the Mohican River, near what is today the intersection of Ohio Route 39 and Interstate 71. The Beams were among the earliest settlers in the area. Jacob Newman, the first European-American settler in what became Richland County, arrived there in 1806. In 1809, Newman built a sawmill and followed that with a gristmill in 1810. In 1811, he sold the entire operation to the Beams (some accounts give the purchaser’s name as Michael Beam, others as Jacob Beam) and it would be known as Beam’s Mill thereafter.

Just like the Kentucky Beams, the Ohio Beams came from western Pennsylvania. We know the Kentucky Beams went back east to Maryland before joining a group of Catholics who were migrating to Kentucky. Another Catholic family making that Maryland-to-Kentucky trek was mine, the Tuckers. (My paternal grandmother was a Tucker.)

These Catholics (along with the Mennonite Beams) would lay the foundations for Kentucky's whiskey industry in what came to be known as the Kentucky Holy Lands.

Back in Ohio, Beam’s Mill was the first in Richland Country, but milling would come to be a key part of the local economy. At its zenith, Richland County had more than 180 gristmills, sawmills and linseed oil mills. Initially, Beam’s grist mill ground only corn, not wheat, although it too was grown in the area.

Beam could afford to specialize because in the beginning his was the only mill for miles around. During his busiest times, customers might have to wait days to have their grain processed. While they waited, Beam’s wife, known familiarly as 'Mother Beam,' fed them her famous corn-cakes, corn-dodgers, and other specialties.

We have to assume whiskey was also available to help pass the time. Frontier millers like Beam were typically paid for their services by keeping five to seven percent of the grain they milled for customers. But since everyone grew grain there wasn't much market for it, so most millers either kept livestock or distilled, or both. From what we know about this sort of frontier outpost, it probably offered a little of everything, serving both the sparse local community and travelers who might come through.  

We know whiskey was produced in the Mansfield area from the earliest days. Some of the evidence for that comes from an unlikely source.

Many of the early settlers in Richland County were Methodists and a Methodist preaching circuit was established in Ohio in 1802. While working that circuit in 1811, Rev. Elisha W. Bowman preached a sermon at Beam’s Mill, the first sermon preached in Richland County. Years later, Jacob Newman’s son recalled that, “in all there were about eight or ten persons including work hands” in attendance.

Later another circuit rider, Lemuel Lane, visited Mansfield and chose for his meeting place the town’s largest building, which happened to be William’s Tavern, “where they sold and drank whisky very free,” he recalled. Lane preached among the revelers for several nights but on Sunday morning he locked them out, much to their consternation.

Mansfield wouldn't get a dedicated house of worship until 1815, after the war. It was built by Rev. William B. James, a Methodist, and stood at the corner of North Adams and East Third Streets. Among the settlers who contributed to its construction were members of the Beam family.

Next time, in Part 3, Beam's Mill will play a role in the War of 1812.

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