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Lawrence County, Ohio: Community known for its rich history in iron and for its role in helping slaves escape via the Underground Railroad

Jul. 08, 2013 @ 12:54 PM

Lawrence County, Ohio, was formed as a county in 1816, named for the American naval hero Capt. James Lawrence, in the war of 1812.

Lawrence was the captain of the U.S.S. Chesapeake. Injured while fighting the British, Lawrence told his sailors “Don’t give up the ship,” which became the rallying cry of the U.S. Navy. His home in New Jersey was in the town of Burlington and Burlington became the name of the first county seat in Lawrence County.

Nestled along the Ohio River and bordering both West Virginia and Kentucky, Lawrence County is a land of contrasts, secrets and intrigue — at one time in its history hiding slaves who were desperately trying to escape to freedom via the Underground Railroad, and at another time housing one of the richest women in the country who also happened to be the only female ironmaster in the world.

Here are five people who helped shape Lawrence County.

John Rankin (1793-1886)

When the author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was asked after the Civil War who abolished slavery, Harriet Beecher Stowe said it was the Rev. John Rankin and his sons.

Rankin, a Presbyterian minister, had to leave his native Tennessee and came to Ripley, Ohio, in 1822. Slave owners and hunters often viewed him as their prime suspect and appeared at his door at all hours demanding information about fugitives. He ended up moving his family to a house at the top of a 540-foot hill that provided a wide view of Ripley, the Ohio River and the Kentucky shoreline.

From there the family could raise a lantern on a flagpole to signal fleeing slaves in Kentucky when it was safe for them to cross north of the Mason-Dixon line, according to Wikipedia.

For more than 40 years, many of the 2,000 slaves who escaped to freedom through Ripley stayed at the family’s home. In 1838, Rankin told the story of a slave who walked across the frozen Ohio River with a child in her arms. Stowe modeled her character Eliza after the woman Rankin and his family helped.

Rankin’s letters to his brother, Thomas, a Virginia slaveowner, were published in book form in 1826 as “Letters on Slavery.” The letters convinced his brother to move to Ohio and free his slaves. By the 1830s, the book had become standard reading for abolitionists all over the United States.

A bounty of up to $3,000 was placed on his life and in 1841, he and his sons had to fight off attackers who came to burn his house and barn in the middle of the night, according to Wikipedia.

Rankin was mobbed and beaten and showered with rotten eggs some 20 times over the years, said Kay Rader with the Lawrence County Historical Society.

Capt. Robert C. Rankin, one of the minister’s nine sons, said all that his father did in the aid of fugitives was to furnish food and shelter. His sons did the conveying away.

He died in Ironton on March 18, 1886, in the house that currently serves as the Lawrence County Museum. He lived in the house for about five years with his granddaughter Eliza Jane Humphreys Gray and her husband, Col. George Noah Gray, a local ironmaster.

When he died in the house at 506 S. 6th St., his body lay in state in the front bay window. Ironton residents of all races and religions walked past the window to pay respects to the noted abolitionist.

His rope bed, rocking chair and desk currently are on display at the museum.

John Campbell (1808-1891)

John Campbell, the founder of Ironton, envisioned a large manufacturing town springing up in a short time in an 1849 letter to a cousin.

Campbell had about $1,000 in his pockets when he came to Lawrence County in 1832 at the age of 24. He assisted in the building of the Hanging Rock forge. He lived in the Hanging Rock area until 1850.

“We have enough of good pretty bottom land to make 1,200 lots — we expect to give for Court House, meeting houses, schools, academy, libraries be probably from 25 to 50 lots to those who will erect rolling mills, foundries or other manufacturing establishments any quantity of ground they may need for their operations on a large scale probably 50 lots or more, leaving us probably 11,000 lots to sell,” Campbell wrote.

Campbell thought about building a town and a railroad in 1848. A local ironmaster, Campbell brought in some competitors to establish the Ohio Iron & Coal Company. The other ironmasters desperately wanted a railroad to move iron from local furnaces to the Ohio River. He proposed building a town site rather than just letting a community spring up on its own.

The town he founded in 1849, Ironton, became the center of the nation’s pig-iron industry. There were more than 90 iron ore furnaces in the area both before and after the Civil War. Iron from one of the local foundaries was used for one of the country’s first ironclad ships, the USS Monitor.

He established eight iron furnaces in the county and established others in Jackson, Scioto and Gallia counties along with another iron furnace in Greenup County, Ky.

Campbell owned and managed Hecla Furnace during the Civil War when Hecla iron was used to make a cannon named Swamp Angel. The cannon was used in Charleston, S.C.

He built a large house on North 5th Street and had a big barn a block or so away on Railroad Street. An abolitionist, Campbell allowed his barn and iron carts and horses to help runaway slaves even though it was against the law. The Rev. John Rankin, the noted abolitionist described above, had a great influence on Campbell, according to Kay Rader, a member of the Lawrence County Historical Society.

It was against the law to aid runaway slaves, but that didn’t deter Campbell in aiding people as they headed north to Canada in a bid for freedom. From Ironton, runaway slaves were taken to the Poke Patch area of northern Lawrence County on their way north.

More than 1,000 people showed up to pay their respects after the local ironmaster who built a town died in 1891.

Today his house is used as the headquarters of the Ironton-Lawrence County Area Community Action Organization.


Nannie Kelly Wright (1856-1946)

There was a time when one of the country’s richest women lived in Ironton.

Nannie Kelly Wright, born in 1856, was the world’s only female ironmaster. An Ironton resident, Wright came to own some of the 90 local iron ore furnaces in the area. Iron from the furnaces was used to make cooking utensils, heating stoves and cannons, among other things.

A book published in 2008 by the Lawrence County Historical Society described Wright as a sharp businesswoman, often demanding and always ready to issue orders. She expected efficient service from employees, servants and salespeople and she expected to pay for that service. Wright had a stately, regal bearing.

“She could be brisk and abrupt in speaking and children often were awed or fearful in her presence,” according to authors the late Virginia Bryant and Sharon Kouns. “She was often quoted as saying that her employees did not want or need a union as she was always available to them to solve problems.”

“There was another side to her personality,” the authors said. “She is described as dear and loving and kind in her dealings with friends and family. She remembered birthdays, anniversaries and other special occasions. She was generous. She loved roses and lace and diamonds. In her China cabinet, she kept a teacup full of unmounted diamonds. During World War II those stones were scarce and area jewelers often bargained with her.”

Her shoes were custom-made in Cincinnati and some of her dresses were made in Paris. “All her life, she seemed to crave attention,” according to the authors. “She monogrammed everything — napkins, tablecloths, handkerchiefs, hairbrushes, shoe horns, silverware and much more.”

“She crossed the Atlantic 14 times and went around the world three times,” said Kay Rader, a member of the historical society. “She would be gone for months. She went to the Court of St. James in London and met with King Edward VII. The dress she wore is on display at the museum.”

“She was definitely ahead of her time,” Rader said.

Wright was born in Catlettsburg, Ky. Her brother, Gus Honshell, married Clare Stoddard of San Francisco, the niece of Collis P. Huntington, railroad tycoon and founder of Huntington.

 She bought the Center Furnace in Elizabeth Township north of Ironton in 1896. She reportedly had a bowling alley built behind her summer home. She occasionally showed up at the furnace and would go into the mines, wearing men’s pants to work beside the men when there was a problem.

In the early 1940s, Wright lived at the Frederick Hotel in Huntington. She celebrated her 90th birthday at the Marting Hotel in Ironton in 1946 and died later that year.

Glenn Presnell

Glenn Presnell was a star when the Ironton Tanks beat a couple of also-ran football teams called the New York Giants and the Chicago Bears in 1930.

The Ironton Tanks were formed in 1919 and played at the same football field where the Ironton High School Fighting Tigers take the field on Football Friday Nights each fall.

“Ironton has always been a football town,” said Norm Beebe, a long-time Ironton resident. “I wasn’t around to watch the Tanks play, but I would watch some high school games there. My daughters went to Ironton.”

The Tigers have been to a number of high school championship games, winning at least two of them

Presnell was a star at Nebraska University when he came to Ironton to play football and teach science at Ironton High School in 1929. Presnell was the oldest living NFL  player until he died several years ago at the age of 99. He played halfback for the Tanks. When the team folded, several of the players, including Presnell, went to play football for the Portsmouth Spartans when the Tanks folded in 1931.

In 1934, the team moved to Detroit and became the Lions. Presnell became one of the team’s star players. He was the player who chose the Honolulu-blue and silver colors for the Lions jerseys.

He played on the Loins 1935 NFL championship team before retiring in 1936.

Presnell served as the football coach at Nebraska in 1942 before becoming a longtime coach and athletic director at Eastern Kentucky University.

The highlight of the Ironton Tanks was a three-week period when the team took the train to Cincinnati and played at Redland Field against both the Giants and the Bears in 1930.

“A bunch of people from the Ironton area would get on the train and go down to Cincinnati to watch the games,” said Kay Rader with the Lawrence County Historical Society. “They would play down there when they were expecting a big crowd.”

The Tanks beat the Bears and Hall of Fame Player Red Grange by a score of 26-13.

A couple of weeks later, the Tanks beat the New York Giants by a score of 13-12. The Tanks were trailing with only a few seconds left in the game when Presnell threw a touchdown pass and then kicked the extra point to put the Tanks ahead.

In its 12-year history, the Tanks had a record of 88-17 with 15 ties.

Pictures of some of the Tanks players, including a team phone, are on display at the museum.

The Waterloo Wonders

More than 80 years ago, the starting five basketball players from tiny Waterloo High School took the state by storm with an undefeated (34-0) team that won Ohio’s small school (Class B) championship.

After the 1933-34 season, the team became a statewide sensation winning a second state championship despite playing some 60 games. In those two years, the team had a 97-3 record. Most of the games were on the road against much bigger schools. In one stretch, the team won seven games in nine days and had a 56-game winning streak, according to a 1995 Sports Illustrated article on the team.

Famed University of Kentucky basketball coach Adolph Rupp was a pretty good recruiter, but couldn’t get any of the Waterloo Wonders to come to Lexington to play basketball.

The team would play five or more high school games a week, once scheduling two games on the same night. The team started out playing in Chesapeake, running up a big lead and leaving at half-time to play a game in Jackson, Ohio. The Wonders won both games. There were only 26 boys in the high school and some of them stayed in Chesapeake for the second half while the starters headed up Ohio 93 to Jackson.

Magellan Harrison coached the Wonders. The starting five were Wyman Roberts, Curtis McMahon, Orlyn Roberts, Beryl Drummond and Stuart Wiseman. Only Wiseman went to college, playing for nearby Rio Grande College. The others eventually turned pro and barnstormed around the country where they played the Harlem Globetrotters, among others.

All five starters were less than 6 feet tall.

“They could really pass the ball,” Bob Leith, an Ironton resident, said earlier. Leith got a first-hand look at the Wonders during a charity game at Ironton’s Sta-Tan swimming pool in the 1960s. “They wanted to play by the old rules where you had a jump ball after every basket.”

The Wonders were fan favorites.

Much like the Globetrotters, the Wonders would show off their half-court set shots or long hook shots and other trick shots. In their second glory season of 1934-35, several of the Wonders would walk off the court and pitch pennies, leaving only two starters on the court, according to Sports Illustrated. Sometimes, the Wonders would shoot marbles in the midcourt circle. If a fan in the stands would urge them to shoot, the Wonders ball-handler might pass the ball to the fan.

The tiny Lawrence County high school closed in 1960.