For decades, the Johnston Farm & Indian Agency in Piqua has been a favorite destination for weekend drives. Last Saturday’s visit to this Ohio Historical Society site was one of the best ever.
The 250-acre historical area features the home of John Johnston (1775-1861), who first hauled supplies for General Anthony Wayne’s army during the Ohio Indian Wars and later was a federal Indian agent overseeing Native American reservations in northwestern Ohio from 1802 until 1828. Johnston also was one of Ohio’s delegates to the Whig Party’s national convention in 1844, helped to found Kenyon College, and served on the board of trustees of Miami University for 25 years.
In 1804, Johnston purchased 235 acres of farmland located 400 yards southwest of Fort Piqua, General Wayne’s 18th-century supply post. The site had also been home to a prehistoric Adena earthwork and a Miami Indian village that served as an English trading post called Fort Pickawillany between 1749 and 1752.
By 1808, Johnston had built a log house, planted a large apple orchard, and constructed a double-penned log barn that’s still standing; it’s reputed to be the oldest and largest of its type in Ohio. A unique two-story spring house was built on the farm between 1808 and 1815. The original spring from which the Johnston family drew their water runs through the bottom of the house. The top floor was devoted to textile production, with an upper loft where hired hands could sleep. On the bottom floor, the room facing the river served as a place to make candles and lye soap. In 1828, the Johnstons built a cider house, where they made hard and soft cider, as well as apple cider vinegar. The farm’s proximity to the Miami and Erie Canal complemented Johnston’s participation on the commission that built Ohio’s canal system.
In 1810, construction began on the brick house that would be the Johnston family’s home. It was completed in 1815. The three-story Federal-style farmhouse with a unique winter kitchen and office level set below ground appears much as it did in 1829.
In the Johnston sons’ bedroom, you can see a 19th-century bowling set, toy tools, and a West Point uniform, since Abraham Robinson Johnston attended the United States Military Academy. Up to nine of the Johnston daughters shared the girls’ bedroom, which was also accessed using a spiraling staircase from the first floor. Another bedroom includes a spinning wheel, to represent the constant spinning pursuits of John’s wife, Rachel Johnston, which once resulted in a deer getting his antlers caught in a harvest of flax she had drying on a line outdoors. That same bedroom also includes a pair of wands made from lavender, something a Johnston Farm volunteer made years ago that I’m hoping to see more of for sale in the museum shop someday.
In the dining room, you can look inside a corner cupboard and see Johnston’s bootjack, as well as his glass from which he drank “flip.” Describing how to make this popular 18th-century beverage, our guide said that beer was poured in a glass until it was about two-thirds full. It was sweetened with sugar, molasses or dried pumpkin, and flavored with a dash of New England rum. The mixture was stirred with a hot iron poker which made the liquor foam and bubble and gave it a burnt, bitter taste. Other New England flip-makers added cream and eggs to the drink.
Besides touring the Johnston Farmhouse, you can spend time in the Piqua Museum, which was constructed to resemble Fort Piqua’s blockhouse style. Exhibits tell the story of Ohio’s Eastern Woodland Indians, Fort Pickawillany and how canals helped frontier Ohio to develop and expand. Behind the museum, you can board the General Harrison, a 70-foot-long replica mixed-cargo canal boat, and ride along a restored mile-long section of the Miami and Erie Canal. Two mules named Kit and Jake pull the boat along the canal’s towpath. The replica canal boat’s design was based on an 1832 drawing from the Ohio Historical Society’s collections. It was built by Scarano Boat Building in Albany, New York and received an award from the American Canal Society for accuracy, our canal boat guide said.
This month, a special exhibit in the Johnston Farmhouse showcases the needlework of Doris Gordon Davis. Born in Louisville, Kentucky on September 26, 1922, Doris was a graduate of the University of Louisville. After she moved to Akron for her husband’s job with B.F. Goodrich, she received her master’s degree in library science from Kent State University and worked as a school librarian in the Revere School System and later as head librarian at Western Reserve Academy in Hudson until her retirement. After she moved to Piqua, Doris volunteered at the Johnston Farm, demonstrating her skill in all types of needlework. A member of the Stan Hywet Needlework Guild in Akron and the American Needlework Guild of Troy, Doris combined her interest in travel and needlework by taking trips to Williamsburg, Virginia and to England to study various needle arts. She died in 2006.
Samplers, bellpulls, needlework accessories, a Nativity scene, needlepoint Christmas ornaments, and examples of tatting and whitework are on display throughout the house. One sampler that Doris made features a motto that perfectly describes me: “Happy the woman who can find constant resources in her own mind.”
Also on display are works from The Tapestry Angel, a needlework store located at 516 Spring Street in Piqua, where I like to visit Mary the owner and her calico cat. The Piqua Public Library and Museum loaned a Piqua coverlet for the exhibition.
To discover more interesting facts about the Johnston family, read the Johnston Farm’s blog.