Oh, To Have Spun Silk, Made Wool Carpets And Pressed Cider With Abigail and John James

John James' cider pressThis circa-1850 cider press on display at the Johnny Appleseed Educational Center and Museum in Urbana isn’t just any old cider press. It’s what a friend of mine named John James used to process apples from trees that Johnny Appleseed planted around James’s Urbana home.

John Hough James (1800-1881) was a real Renaissance man. Before he graduated from Cincinnati College in 1821, he began to write for newspapers and literary magazines published in the Queen City. He worked on his father’s steamboat after college, traveling down the Mississippi River from Louisville, Kentucky to New Orleans, Louisiana. When he returned to his native Urbana in 1826, he became a lawyer and created the Urbana Banking Company. Later, he became an Ohio State Senator and was involved in the development of the Mad River and Lake Erie Railroad, one of the earliest railroads in the country. He also was a gentleman farmer and stockbreeder. Henry Clay and William Henry Harrison were among his friends.

In 1821, when he was a senior in college, James began to keep a diary, which he continued until his death in 1881. He also was a prolific letter-writer. In 1863, he classified his own correspondence, as well as the letters that his family wrote, dating back to 1814. He arranged the letters in chronological order and bound them in 114 volumes with cardboard covers. Although many of these diaries and letters were scorched in a fire a year before James’s death, they are now safely housed at the Walter Havighurst Special Collections at Miami University Libraries. And that’s how I met Mr. James.

As I transcribed and cataloged some of these diaries and letters, I discovered much about the lives of James, his wife Abigail and their four children.  I was especially interested in reading about their home at 300 S. High St. in Urbana.

John Hough James, as pictured on the cover of A Buckeye Titan

John Hough James, as pictured on the cover of A Buckeye Titan

In 1836, James hired Sampson Hubbell to plan a Greek Revival home situated on what his contemporaries would have called a “tasty” tract of land. Its sturdy brick walls had quoined corners made of beveled poplar boards that were painted white to resemble stone. The walls were studded with hand-split hickory laths, plastered on the inside and stuccoed on the outside, a new and popular building practice of the day.

The 22-room house had paneled doors, wide baseboards and ash floors, wainscoting in the parlor, and white-painted woodwork. An unsupported spiral stairway with ash steps and a tiger maple balustrade wound up three floors, past landings made from wide maple boards. A captain’s walk with a balustrade topped the roof, while a vine-covered portico sheltered the front door, whose sidelights were framed by hand-carved egg-and-dart moldings. An L-shaped wing behind the main block of the home contained guest rooms, servants’ quarters, a room for smoking meat, a second kitchen, rooms for wood storage, and two rooms where Abigail and her sisters kept busy spinning wool for the home’s carpets and manufacturing silk. The James family was one of several Champaign County families who cultivated, made and sold sewing silk at least through 1842. Their home was surrounded by over 100 mulberry trees, whose leaves are the only ones that silkworms will eat.300 S. High St., Urbana, Ohio

While James was known for his collection of manuscripts, books, pamphlets, periodicals and newspapers — his library was considered one of the finest private libraries in the West — Abigail was admired for her garden, which included formal beds of hyacinths, daffodils and tulips; asparagus plants; walnut trees; rare ornamental trees and shrubs; and bushes of raspberries and currants, the fruits of which she made into wine, vinegar and jelly.

James experimented with seedling fruit trees on his property, producing the fine “Abby Bailey” apple which he named for his wife. There was also a row of apple trees near the house which John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed, planted for James.

Chapman and James became good friends. In fact, Chapman encouraged James to donate the land on which to build the first college that would be based on the ideals that Emanuel Swedenborg promoted through his writings. The site of Urbana University was chosen in October 1849, the institution was incorporated by the Ohio legislature on March 7, 1850, and the cornerstone was laid in 1851. Abigail supervised the planting of ornamental trees on the campus, planting many of them herself. Besides giving the land for the campus and founding the college, James served as one of its trustees for the rest of his life.

300 S. High St., Urbana, OhioTo learn more about John Hough James, read A Buckeye Titan, by William E. and Ophia D. Smith. Click here to access the finding aids for the John Hough James Collection at the Walter Havighurst Special Collections at Miami University Libraries. 

While there’s another lovely house at 300 S. High St. now, you can still get an idea of how grand the grounds were. You can also see what the original James home looked like here, in several historic photographs from the Champaign County Historical Museum.

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