Westchester History

Westchester History

Before Westchester

Long before white settlers appeared on the landscape, the lands, which now comprise our Westchester subdivision, were hunting grounds for the Delaware, Mingo and Wyandot Indians, who inhabited the vicinity. There was a temporary Indian village around the Taggart Road area, which was used as temporary lodging for the Indians roaming this area on their hunting expeditions.

 

The land later became part of the U.S. Military Lands. The Military Lands (2.5 million acres) were set aside by the U.S. Congress in 1796 to provide for payment of military debts from the American Revolution. Not all veterans were interested in settling in the area and often sold or traded the lands without even seeing them. Speculators and developers subsequently acquired these lands. The Union Company and the Scioto Company (James Kilbourne who settled Worthington) were companies from Connecticut who surveyed, developed and sold lots in the Worthington/Liberty Township area. Westchester was included in the 4000 acres of the 1805 Union Company survey.

                                   

David Thomas purchased a good share of the land in our area of the Olentangy River Valley. He came from Connecticut to Ohio on foot in 1801, purchased 100 acres in Franklin County and helped build the first mill in Franklin County. He returned to Connecticut on foot. There, he and his wife Mary (Polly) Holcomb started a family, returning to Ohio in 1806. David Thomas purchased 200 additional acres, this time in Liberty Township. Parts of Westchester Subdivision were included in this purchase. David Thomas settled on the land in 1810. He and his wife ran a stagecoach stop/inn in their log cabin on the west side of the river just south of the present-day Carriage Road. When Thomas died in 1826, he was only 42 years old. His wife Mary (Polly) continued to operate the tavern for a while after his death and lived to the ripe old age of 97. It is said that she smoked her pipe every day!

 

The Thomas Tavern played an important part in the development of Liberty Township as a stopping place on the trail from Franklinton (now Columbus) to Sandusky. Here the stage horses were changed and weary travelers rested. The tavern also played an important civic role in our community. Liberty Township held meetings in the tavern until 1830 when they were moved to the school house near the Liberty Presbyterian Church. The Liberty Township maps of 1880 still show much of the land that would later be Westchester still in the hands of the Thomas family.

 

The Thomas legacy lives on today. David Thomas’ son James built the stone house just north of Carriage Road in 1854. There he raised his family. His last child, ‘Nan” Thomas Green, gave birth to Kathryn Green Harris in 1913, in the same room and bed where she had been born. This was shortly after the great 1913 flood which devastated so much of this area. Kathryn says her mother endured the labor pains while listening to workers making repairs on the road bed of the Orange Road Bridge over the Olentangy River. This bridge was the only bridge over the Olentangy River to survive the 1913 Flood. It is now listed on The National Register of Historic Places. Kathryn Harris and her husband built and lived in the house just south of Carriage Road on the west side of the river. Their son still resides in Liberty Township. The Thomas Cemetery can be found just south of Westchester Subdivision where Wren Lane begins. Access is .5 miles south of Orange Road. According to records, the cemetery is approximately ¼ acre in size and contains 180 graves. The first known burial was Abel Thomas (David’s brother) in 1822. The last known burial was in 1984. The Thomas Cemetery is surrounded by a limestone wall. It is under the jurisdiction and maintenance of the Liberty Township Trustees.

 

                                     

Thomas Cemetery as it appears today. 
Photo courtesy of Jeanne Stoll.

 

The beginnings of Westchester

Fast forward to the 1950’s, and the land that would later be Westchester is included in 5 large parcels owned and being worked by area farmers. The original concept for Westchester was born in the mid 1950’s out of a desire on the part of several of these landowners  to maximize their property value. This adventuresome group, with no prior real estate experience, included Edward Stein, who owned land from Liberty Road eastward (the Stein farmhouse still stands on Liberty Road),  Richard Wood, and David Tilton. Tom Campbell, a Grandview resident, and three other investors, joined the group to form the Olentangy Estates Development Company.  “Westchester on the Olentangy” was originally platted out with 3- to 5-acre lots.

 

First We Need a Road

Tom Campbell, president of  Olentangy Estates developers, took the lead in arranging for road construction. He contacted Jim Visintine, who would later become a major player in the development of Westchester.  Visintine, previously an expert in building grain elevators on the Missouri River around St. Louis, had been lured to the Columbus area to start a construction company eventually called Visintine, Jackson and Igo. Structural engineer John “Jack” Chapman, long-time resident of Westchester until his recent passing and a major contributor to this history, went to work for them in 1954 and, thus, was part of the development team for Westchester from the beginning.

 

Campbell requested that Visintine base his bid for construction of the roads through the new Westchester development on cutting the roads, moving the earth, putting in culverts, and laying  8” of crushed stone. The developers informed Visintine that Visintine & Co. was the lucky low bidder. There was only one catch—the developers had no money to pay him until lots were sold. Therefore, they proposed that each month Visintine give the owners a bill for work completed. They would pay him 5% interest and reimburse him when lots were sold. Visintine, agreeing that this was going to be a beautiful development, countered with the proposal that he build the roads and take the 5% monthly interest until lots were sold, but the owners would give Visintine & Co. a mortgage of $1000 on every lot that was not already sold. The owners agreed to his terms.

 

Based on these arrangements, construction for our road began in 1957. Visintine even took two scrapers away from the company’s formidable contract building Interstate 71 in order to “build this road up in Delaware County.” The first road built was called Wren Lane and included the eastern and western portions of what we now call Carriage and the loop still designated as Wren Lane.  The rest of Carriage was completed in about 1961-2.

 

Now We Need a House

The first house was built about 1959 on three-acre Lot Number 502 at the eastern connection of what are now Carriage Road and Wren Lane. Realizing the need to be able to say that there were residents of this new development, Tom Campbell formed a company called Westchester Builders to erect this house, built on spec and initially rented. According to Stein, Curly Yontz, owner of a restaurant down in the University district, had the honor of being our first resident. Yontz lived here 4 or 5 years.  However, Yontz remained one of the few residents. From 1959 to l962 there were only about five additional homes built on Wren Lane. Apparently this lack of homes was a boon to the local teens. According to Marge Bennett, life-long resident of the area and current owner of the picturesque sheep farm on Powell Road east of the Four Corners, our country road was quite the “Lovers’ Lane.” Her daughter, Sherri Carmichael confirms this (and was a tad bit surprised to learn that her mother knew about it). Russ Stein, one of the contributors to this history and grandson of Ed Stein, one of the original developers, recalls the rural nature of the area at that time. He spent many summers living with his grandparents on their farm on Liberty Road, just south of the new Westchester, and working on the local farms. One of his favorite recollections is of a German-speaking farmer named Smondt (sp?) who owned the area on the north side of what is now Carriage Road. He had a great, long driveway coming up from the River Road, but he would bring his horse and wagon through the farmlands and right through the Stein property on a regular basis on his way to Worthington to the market. The Stein’s dog would nip at him every time he came through, but that was no deterrent. Stein also remembers his English-speaking grandfather and the solely German-speaking farmer standing and talking to each other for half an hour at a time—neither understanding a word the other said, but being neighborly just the same. Smondt passed away in the late 1940s, leaving a house and barn which became abandoned. Jeanne Stoll, one of our historians,  recalls the barn being full of intriguing, old farm implements, everything apparently left just as it was the last time its owner walked out. The barn stood until the development of Wingate.

 

Financial Turmoil

The developers incurred a large mortgage when they built the road. According to Stein, his grandfather and the other developers had invested in construction of the road and other improvements predicated on being able to sell lots, and they were just unable to do so. In the 1950’s there was no multi-lane 315 and virtually nothing between Worthington and MountAire. For most people, it was just too far to consider moving to this new area. In approximately 1960, Olentangy Estates found themselves in financial trouble. The Westchester developers were supposed to make monthly payments to Visintine for the road construction but found this obligation difficult to meet month after month, year after year. Payments were in arrears and Visintine could have foreclosed at any time, but had not done so. Tom Campbell, who had taken on much of the burden of coordinating efforts between Olentangy Estates and Visintine & Co., became so concerned that the turmoil began affecting his health. Finally, in 1966 or 7 Tom Campbell approached Jim Visintine and requested he foreclose and take the property.   Visintine agreed, and set about creating Olentangy River Realty. He contacted John Chapman and Cliff Honeycutt, a local real estate agent, and asked them if they would like 10% ownership and the right to sell lots. With the 10% ownership in development, which allowed them to sell lots without a real estate license, up went a sign for Westchester  lots. Chapman continued his full-time career working with Visintine on the downtown interchange design and construction, selling lots on the side, while Honeycutt not only devoted significant time to marketing the lots, but, according to Chapman, even jumped on his bush hog and began clearing much of the old barbwire fences and brush, especially on the north side of the development.

 

Olentangy River Realty made the decision to cut the size of most available lots in half in order to make individual lots more affordable. The development now had grown from 69 to  113 lots, 5 “Reserves” (areas considered unbuildable or left to allow access to surrounding farmlands), plus close to 8 acres for the River Ridge Riding Club at the northwest corner of the subdivision as recorded in Plat Book 7, Pages 151-4, Delaware County, Ohio. Plats boasted that “The rolling land, ravines, and beautiful wooded areas create a scenic setting for each home site. The size of the site provides the privacy for gracious suburban living.”

 

Now We Need a Theme

River Ridge Riding Club on West Henderson Road in Columbus was quite popular, and the area had boomed with development and shopping centers--so much so that the Club was offered such a substantial amount of money for their property that they sold. The developers of Westchester thought that if they allowed the Riding Club to move up here off Liberty Road, all the “horse people” from Arlington and other wealthy areas would just grab the Westchester lots as soon as they were made available. They proposed 5 miles of bridal trails around the subdivision 15 ft. wide. They also proposed that an inside track be built at the corner of Carriage and Liberty Road. Unfortunately, the plan never was the draw they anticipated.

 

Completing the amenities for the horse theme wasn’t easy, either. Chapman broke ground on his own home in Westchester in l968 and moved up here in June of 1969. He recalls joining the Riding Club when they moved here in hopes that his daughter would enjoy riding. He was immediately put on a committee to investigate building the trails and making sure the horses could get through. There was a big swamp down at the southeastern end of the development.  Chapman estimated that huge quantities of stone would have to be brought in to make that area passable. Access was not easy, and the cost proved prohibitive. Ultimately, property deeds included bridal access areas, maintenance the responsibility of the property owners.

 

Construction of the first large horse barn ran into almost as much difficulty. Owners were interested in saving a dollar or two and hired an inexpensive contractor who proceeded to lay the 14-foot walls with cement block. Along came a 50-mile-per-hour wind, and all the walls fell down. Chapman, a structural engineer, was called upon to evaluate the situation. Based on his recommendations, the contractors started over, presumably with an understanding of how to correct the problem, but the wind blew again, and the walls tumbled again! Rather than periodically placing cement blocks at a 90 degree angle within the wall structure, they had chosen to simply add a column of block every 10 feet or so, parallel to the wall. No support, just an additional tier of bricks to come a-tumbling down! On the third try, the walls went up and stayed put.

 

Construction of the roof didn’t fair much better. The contractors left one wall off and started putting trusses up, again without proper support. One night the 50 or 60 trusses dominoed onto the ground. To this day one of the walls is still off-center, but the building has been made structurally sound.

 

Stein recalls that that wasn’t the end of the difficulties. The horse barn also collapsed in the big snow of 1978. Westchester was landlocked for three days. Tom Arndt recalls that this was the only time mail was not delivered to Westchester—the mailboxes were completely covered with snow, and the Post Office was closed for 4 days. The storm and wind were so severe, that the horses in his own barn, on Liberty, were covered with snow, as was the ceiling of the barn! Finally, on Saturday morning a bulldozer made its way down Liberty Road, opening a single path for the first time in days. Russ remembers being out of cigarettes and bread and, thus, decided to brave the elements to make it to the little grocery in Powell. Russ followed the bulldozer into town for his “necessities,” turned around and headed back north, only to find someone else coming south. His second trip into Powell that day was made in “Reverse.”

 

The Road Again

Per Chapman, around 1968 the roadbed became a real issue. The county engineer who had originally accepted graveled Carriage Road and Wren Lane as complete and public roads in Liberty Township apparently did so without Liberty Township having anything to say about it. The 6 or 8 owners who had already built were told the lots included an asphalt road, not a dusty gravel road.  Olentangy River Realty quickly altered future contracts to eliminate the promise of asphalt, but previous owners were not to be put off. Bill Kramer recalls that when they bought in 1966 the road was gravel without much gravel. There was a dip in the road in front of what is now 2155 Carriage Road where cars used to constantly get stuck. The township ended up with the headache, and proceeded to get bids to put down the asphalt. It was going to be financed by assessing all the homeowners per frontage foot. The contract was for about $90,000. The only problem was, no one wanted to bid on doing the project. Having the most interest in the project and being contractors, Olentangy River Realty lined up a good asphalt contractor and rebid the project. As the only bidders, Olentangy River Realty got the contract and paved the road.

 

From Roadbeds to Rockbeds

Honeycutt built several homes in the area including 1233 Carriage and 1270 Carriage. 1270 Carriage was the first home he built. As he prepared to break ground, he was concerned about hitting limestone, and asked Chapman for his advice. Chapman suggested that they meet at the property on their lunch hour and run a piece of reinforcing rod into the ground to the depth of the planned excavation. Working at the south end, they drove an 8-foot length of reinforcing steel down through the sod and into the ground with no problems, a full 8 feet. Honeycutt lined up an excavator who arrived with a brand new hydraulic backhoe, all Simonized and ready to go. Chapman and Honeycutt, on site for the grand groundbreaking, watched as the excavator unloaded the backhoe, spun it around, and lowered the shovel. The teeth cut through the sod and crashed down into a solid layer of limestone. Later investigation showed that there were a few cracks in the limestone, and Honeycutt and Chapman’s lunchhour exploration had lucked into one of those cracks. The contractor promptly loaded his shiny, new backhoe back onto the trailer and left. A dynamite contractor out of Dublin was called in to blast the basement. Owners of 1270 Carriage can confirm the existence of the rockbed. Their attempt to simply dig a trench for a water line went from jackhammers to trenchers, to disabled trenchers, to an industrial-grade wrecker before the job was completed.

 

Telephone Service Would Be Nice

The nearly solid limestone layers lurking under the properties discouraged a number of potential buyers in the following years. The geology also caused problems with the telephone installation. The restrictions established for the development called for all utilities to be underground except along the rear of the property. Suppliers wanted nothing to do with the installation problems involved. The telephone boundary between Ohio Bell and Northern Ohio Telephone ran right down Rutherford Road and east into the new development. Ohio Bell wouldn’t serve these new homes because they said it was not their territory; Northern Ohio (GTE) would not incur the expense to bring a phone line this far south. Finally Ohio Bell, thanks to Chapman’s contacts with the contractor involved, managed to trench conduits through the limestone from Olentangy River Road halfway through the development. From that midway point, the development swung to the north and into Northern Ohio Telephone territory. Property owners in this northwestern section recall going 5 years without a phone because Northern Ohio, out of Norwalk, refused to put the utilities underground in the easements which ran across the back of the properties. Jim Rush, one of the original residents on Wren Lane, along with Bill Kramer, adamantly and persistently insisted that phone service be supplied, so out of apparent exasperation, Northern Ohio came through and slapped in a series of small, single poles every 100 ft. or so, with a couple of wires, about the dimension of a little finger, right across the fronts of the properties. At this point Northern Ohio announced that they were ready to put in Rush’s phone. Rush inquired if they were aware that utilities were to be underground according to papers filed at the court house. They declared they had no intention of putting the line underground. Apparently it was 5 more years before phone service was supplied through a compromise between Northern Ohio and Olentangy River Realty. Northern Ohio agreed they would furnish the cable and drop the cable into the trench if Olentangy River Realty would dig the trench. Four- to five-thousand feet of trenching later, the phones were installed.

 

Ohio Bell and Ohio Northern maintained that the line between their two services ran due east and west. Carriage Road and its homes meandered sometimes to the north and sometimes to the south of this line. Thus, approximately 50% of the development was Ohio Bell and 50% Ohio Northern. Maggie Webb, one of our historians and a homeowner since 1981, recalls that making phone calls in those days could elicit tears of exasperation--deciding who lived in which service area was nearly impossible and getting through to the Columbus area at all was totally unreliable. And history does repeat itself, as we find our development divided between two area codes once again!

 

Worth It All in the End

Westchester really came into its own in the late ‘60’s and the 70’s. Roads linking the properties with greater Columbus made the area far more accessible, and Columbus was sprawling outward. The area was discovered for the very reasons the original developers had intended, an unusual topography of “rolling land, ravines, and beautiful wooded areas…for gracious suburban living.” Those of us lucky enough to call Westchester “home” still appreciate their forethought.

 

 

Acknowledgments

Thanks to our volunteer WHOA historians Jeanne Stoll, Maggie Webb, and Linda Lakemacher.  Also thanks to Russell Stein, the late John Chapman, Jim Rush, Tom Arndt, and Bill Kramer for allowing our historians to interview them about their recollections and for contributing materials for the Westchester History publication. We also thank the Delaware County Records office personnel and thanks to Maggie, volunteer librarian for the Delaware County Historical Society, for providing the early history of the area.