Editor’s Note – This is the second in a series of stories authored by Robert Kroeger, who has painted 11 barns in Highland County and has plans to paint more. The first 11 paintings, usually framed with actual wood from the barn pictured, will be auctioned off April 2 when the Highland County Extension Support Committee holds its annual dinner fundraiser at the fairgrounds. Proceeds from five of the paintings will benefit the committee. Kroeger titled this story “Washington Blackburn’s Barn.”
It’s not often that an old barn has an interesting story to tell, but this one has three, spanning 300 years: the Gist Settlement, Washington Blackburn (the barn’s builder), and the present owners, Debbie and Wayne Lewis.
The first story begins in Manchester, England, in 1717, the year Samuel Gist was born. Gist began his life as an orphan, not a good situation in 18th century England. He decided to improve his life by sailing to America in 1739, working as an indentured servant to pay for his passage. He was 22 when he arrived and traveled to Virginia, where he was indentured to tobacco farmer John Smith, whose wife he married when Smith died in 1747. He was 30 at that time and instantly became wealthy, inheriting vast farmland and hundreds of slaves to work the land. Gist, apparently a pretty sharp tool in the shed, also made lots of money in real estate speculation.
So, this orphan from England now was a rich a plantation owner in Virginia. But the colonies became unhappy with mother England and revolted in 1776. Gist, a true Englishman who opposed this revolution, transferred his slaves and land to his stepdaughter, and fled to England in 1776, a strange move, considering the New World gave him tremendous financial success.
Perhaps he preferred to live in his more “civilized” England. Anyway, he may have never returned to Virginia. Regardless of his residence in England, he was able, in the early 1800s, to take legal action against his stepdaughter to reclaim his land and slaves.
Some historians estimate he might have owned a 1,000 slaves, though 500 is a more reasonable number. As he grew old, he apparently had second thoughts about slavery, even though his slaves had provided a comfortable living for him. So, when he wrote his final will in 1808, he stipulated that all of his slaves in Virginia be given freedom, education, and instruction in the Protestant religion. Later, he had second thoughts again and added amendments to his will to revoke the freedom clause. To insure that his wishes be carried out, he established a trust to take care of his slaves.
When Gist died in England in 1815, the trustees – possibly on both sides of the Atlantic – ignored the amendments and decided to honor his original intent to free the slaves.
The Gist trustees sold land in Virginia and bought land in Ohio. Perhaps as many as 150 slaves decided to remain on their master’s land in Virginia, but the other 350 decided to head north. Their first settlement was in Erie County where the first group of Gist slaves arrived in the late 1820s or early 1830s. After several years, the slaves returned to their native Virginia. Maybe they didn’t like the frigid northern Ohio winters. Maybe they had trouble growing tobacco.
The Gist trustees also purchased about 2,000 acres of land in warmer southern Ohio – in Adams, Brown and Highland counties, which have been fertile grounds for tobacco farming for 200 years. Many of the slaves settled in these counties. But there was one problem. They didn’t own the land – the trust did and the trust was responsible for paying land taxes to the new state. Unfortunately, the trust ran out of money in the mid-1840s and, since the freed slaves didn’t own the land, they couldn’t pay the taxes. Still, they lived in these settlements. In 1851, Highland County took over the trust, with the land ownership still a murky question.
In 1948, after many acres were auctioned by the state to pay for taxes, one of the slave descendants, Samuel Turner, hired lawyers to get title. Even into the 1960s they weren’t successful. Thirty years later – in 1978 – Samuel Turner’s grandson, Paul Turner, returned to his roots and in the late 1980s paid nearly $30,000 in back taxes, finishing payments in 1995, to save the land from being auctioned. This original settlement had over 200 acres; today it’s down to 161.
On Gist Settlement Road, not far from this barn, an Ohio Historical Marker was placed in 2003 to commemorate this relocation of freed slaves. The barn stands close by, a silent sentinel, having witnessed the largest relocation of freed slaves in America.
Not long after Gist’s slaves were relocated, Washington Blackburn was born in Pennsylvania in 1829. In 1846, three Conard brothers of Highland County, apparently successful farmers, wanted barns built. And not just any barns, but big double-decker Pennsylvania Lancaster barns. So they contacted a master builder of such barns, Elisha Brown of Pennsylvania who, apparently busy with enough work, couldn’t leave, instead sending Washington Blackburn, a 17-year-old carpenter who had been his apprentice for four years.
Washington and his co-workers traveled via the National Road from Pennsylvania, then by boat down the Ohio to Cincinnati, and then to Highland County. Wet behind the ears, Washington must have been confident enough in his skills and a pretty good salesman, too, to convince the brothers that he could do the job. They hired the kid.
Blackburn and his crew got to work, assembled the framing, and then sent word into the community for 50 men to help raise it. One hundred came, probably curious to see if this monstrous building would work. It did. It was 1846, 14 years before the Civil War began. Slavery was going strong. Abraham Lincoln ran for Congress and won. The Gist-freed slaves lived nearby on their trust-owned plots. Highland County was anything but boring in those days.
Young Washington and his team finished the other two barns before hay harvest and lived with the Conards for seven years, instead of returning to their home state. Blackburn married a young lady who, like himself, had recently moved to this county, and he apparently gave up building barns and became a farmer, a trader, and a good businessman. He laid down roots here and died in 1904, leaving this barn as a legacy. His descendants continue to live in the county. One graduated from high school with Paul Turner.
Robert Ensminger, in his book “The Pennsylvania Barn: Its Origin, Evolution and Distribution in North America,” commented on the high stone arches, which still not only grace this barn’s appearance, but offer support as well. Some thought that Blackburn built the stone arches high to allow the draft horses to enter the barn.
The third part of the story introduces the current owners, Wayne and Debbie Lewis, who purchased the farm and its barn in 1998. Tiring of the hustle and bustle and traffic of the Cincinnati suburbs, which slowly encroached on their farm, they sold it and moved to Highland County, seeking a life of farming without traffic. Rather than seeing the barn go further downhill, they spent considerable money to repair it and preserve the memory of its builder. The hand-hewn beams, still as solid as they were in 1846, continue to hold the barn together, and the stone arches and their surrounding stonework, shows that the lads knew a thing or two about masonry as well as carpentry. Thanks to Wayne and Debbie, the barn will survive.
Robert Kroeger is a former Cincinnati area dentist who has since ran in and organized marathons, took up the painting skills he first picked up from his commercial artist father, become a published author, and is a certified personal trainer that started the LifeNuts vitality program.