After years of admiring a brick house perched on a knoll a few miles south of Circleville that overlooks U.S. Route 23, I was thrilled to learn that the public can finally tour this historic home known as Mount Oval.
One of the earliest federal land grants in Pickaway County, the 161-acre property sat along the old Scioto Trail. In 1832, William Renick, a cattle breeder and dealer, purchased the farmland and had a unique home built there, which he named Mount Oval because of the oval-shaped knoll on which it sat. In the 1830s, Renick paid $20 for an oil painting of his home by William Kimbaugh. The painting still hangs in the central room of the home.
Mount Oval is said to follow floor plans for a garden house that Thomas Jefferson designed to be built at Monticello. A similar floor plan can also be found in A Book of Architecture, which British architect James Gibbs published in 1728.
Inside the house, a large central ballroom measuring 25 feet square and 12 feet high is flanked by three corner bedrooms, each measuring ten feet square and of equal height. One of those corner rooms was designed as a room for the resident head drover of cattle that were moved along the Scioto Trail. It can only be accessed from porches with arched and curved paneled ceilings that were added to the home.
An ingenious folding door separates the parlor from the dining room.
Mount Oval is recognized for its unique design, excellent craftsmanship and beautiful details like walnut woodwork, a finely carved mantel and decorative glass transoms above some of its paneled doors. In fact, it is so fine that Ihna Frary rightly included it in his book, Early Homes of Ohio.
The smokehouse behind the home looks like it came straight from Virginia, with the same open diamond pattern in the brickwork that you can see at Bremo on the James River and Barboursville in Orange County, Frary observed.
In 1851, ill health forced Renick to sell Mount Oval, together with his cattle, hogs, corn, and 25 stands of bees. The handbill announcing the sale hangs in the drover’s room. Jacob Ludwig purchased the property and gave it to his son, Daniel, and his bride, Julia Steeley, as a wedding present. In 1915, one of their children, Elizabeth, moved into the home and later married Bernard Young. Their five-year-old niece, Mary Ruth Tolbert, was an orphan, and she came to live at Mount Oval when she was eight. She made it her home for the rest of her life, until she died in 2012.
Tolbert received her bachelor’s degree from The Ohio State University in 1935 and a master’s degree in music from Columbia University. She continued her graduate work at Julliard School of Music and Ohio State. In addition to teaching vocal and instrumental music at Ohio State’s School of Music for over 40 years, she authored several music publications, including Music for the Pre-School Child, Music of Young Children and This Is Music, which is still used in many schools today. She incorporated her studies in Europe, Russia, China, Africa and Mediterranean countries into her teaching and writing. Tolbert was the former president of the Ohio Music Education Association and a former president of the Pickaway County Historical Society. You can discover more about Tolbert in Robert Butche’s new biography of her, I Hear Music: The Mary Ruth Tolbert Story.
While Tolbert made improvements such as installing indoor plumbing and electricity in 1967 and replanting heirloom apple trees on the property, she kept quite a bit just the same as it had been. For example, the home still contains a suite of bedroom furniture, including a bed similar to one that Mary Todd Lincoln purchased for the White House, which the Ludwigs bought from Mitchell & Company in Cincinnati during their honeymoon.
Upon her death, Tolbert donated her home and farm to the Pickaway County Historical Society to be used as a learning center for music and agriculture. The society is raising money to improve Mount Oval’s grounds by offering tours and special events like an exhibit of approximately 300 Wedgwood pieces from private collections that took place in the home last weekend.
During that event, visitors could tour the home and explore Mount Oval’s barns…
where they could browse through items for sale by local businesswomen, such as fairy garden miniatures made by Julie Brunner of Garden Gal Original Designs.
The Buttons & Bowls 4-H Club provided complimentary refreshments, including lemonade and thumbprint cookies from Lindsey’s Bakery in Circleville. Lindsey’s is known for its pumpkin doughnuts and a giant pumpkin pie during the annual Circleville Pumpkin Show, which it has made since 1952. Weighing 400 pounds and measuring eight feet in diameter, the pie is made with 96 pounds of cooked pumpkin, 15 dozen eggs and 36 pounds of dough; it bakes for 12 hours.
From May through September, Mount Oval is open for tours on the first and third Saturday of the month at 10:30 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. Tours will also be available on the first and third Wednesday of the month at 1:00 p.m. from June through August. Reservations are suggested, but not required. Call the Pickaway County Historical Society at 740-474-1495.
While in Circleville, visit Wittich’s Chocolates, a fourth-generation family business that was started by German immigrant Gottlieb Wittich in 1840. Wittich first worked as a bookbinder, but lack of work led him to apprentice as a confectioner’s helper in Cincinnati. He learned how to make stick candy and rock candy, gum-paste and compounded cordials; baked ornamental cakes and pies; and made ice cream. After the turn of the 20th century, Wittich’s started making chocolate.
Today, Wittich’s is lined with cases of candy made from original family recipes, including triple mints, white chocolate Buckeyes, pistachio creams, coconut brittle, and cinnamon rosebud mints. Its boxes feature Gottlieb Wittich’s drawing of Circleville as it appeared in 1836.
Wittich’s also has one of the last remaining operating soda fountains in the country, acquired in 1997 when the Beechwold Pharmacy, once located at 4622 North High Street in Columbus, closed. You can sit at the counter and order milkshakes, ice cream and hot fudge sundaes. During the annual Circleville Pumpkin Show, Wittich’s makes pumpkin fudge, pumpkin brittle, pumpkin Buckeyes, pumpkin creams and pumpkin syrup for ice cream.