A Brief Peek at the Past
Van Wert, Ohio, is part of the territory lying at the southern edge of what was known as the Great Black Swamp, which abounded in furbearing animals, especially the beaver - the fur of which commanded the highest prices in the capitals of Europe. In fact, it was the competition between France and England for control of the fur trade of the Black Swamp that brought the first known white man to what is now Van Wert County.
During the winter hunting season, this region was a paradise for the Indian hunter who knew the trails through the swamp. The Shawnees, after a desperate struggle with the Miami's, regained the area of the headwaters of the Maumee Valley, which they had lost to the Iroquois many years before, and the hunting grounds which now comprise Van Wert County fell under their control. In this quiet retreat, Indian warriors often left their families while conducting many of the battles of those days. Many of these battles were fought against General "Mad" Anthony Wayne, and relics of Indian living and burial grounds are found in all sections of the county. This district, of which Van Wert County is a part, occupies the center of a triangle formed by three rivers - the Maumee, the Auglaize, and the St. Marys, on whose banks the struggle for possession of the Northwest Territory was fought.
In 1790, General Joshia Harmar marched with his army to build an American fort at Kekionga (now Fort Wayne, Indiana) and the Van Wert County headwater creek area was used by the Indians as a sanctuary for their women and children away from the war trails. But Harmar suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Indian Confederation under Chiefs Little Turtle and Blue Jacket. The following year, General Arthur St. Clair marched towards this region, but did not even reach the St. Marys River, as his army was massacred by the Indians at what is now Fort Recovery, in Mercer County. During the next two years, the Indian trails through Van Wert County were alive with Indian runners carrying plans and orders of the great Indian Confederation to defeat the army of General Anthony Wayne, which was forming at points on the Ohio River. In his march north from Fort Washington (Cincinnati), Wayne traversed Van Wert County in August, 1794, and camped twice in this area with his army of 5,000 men. After his victory over the Indians at Fallen Timbers (near what is now Maumee, OH), the Indians lost the hunting grounds of their forefathers. In 1820, our part of the old Indian lands became Van Wert County.
In January of 1821, Captain James Riley moved his family to a site near the rapids of the St. Marys River at what is now the village of Willshire. Riley, a native of Middletown, Connecticut, had been a seafaring man. He became shipwrecked off the coast of Africa and was taken captive. His release was secured by William Willshire, a British merchant at Magadore. Morocco. Several years after his return to the United States, Riley was named Deputy Surveyor and commissioned to survey the lands in western Ohio obtained from the Indians by the Treaty of 1818. Captain Riley laid out and filed the plat for the village of Willshire in 1822. He named the community in honor of his benefactor. The village of Willshire served as the first county seat of Van Wert County. In 1835 the County Commissioners moved the county seat from Willshire to the village of Van Wert. The town of Van Wert was incorporated in 1848.
Growth in the population of Van Wert was slow in the early years because trails, which later became roads, were the only means of travel, except, of course, for the various rivers and streams. The building of the Miami‐Erie Canal, along the eastern edge of the County, encouraged settlers to come to this area. It was completed in 1845 and about the same time, the village of Delphos was founded.
Following the Civil War and with the development of the railroads, the County’s destiny was linked with timber and the resulting products. At one time there were 15 stave factories in Van Wert County. When it became apparent that the timber supply would eventually be exhausted and the lands were cleared, and attention turned to tilling the soil. By 1900, Van Wert County had become a farming community. In addition to the crops, the County became known for the fine draft horses raised here. Still later, there were many fine dairy herds throughout the county.
In the late 1920’s, the trend turned toward manufacturing and today the County is known for both agricultural and manufacturing goods. Today, ours is a diversified economy consisting of many service-related industries as well as manufacturing (ambulances, automotive parts, processed foods, tool boxes, fiber drums, clothing and accessories and wooden doors and trim). We also have almost 250,000 acres of fertile soil producing corn, soybeans, wheat, popcorn, hogs and dairy cattle.
Today, nearly 200 years after the first family arrived in Van Wert County, the County’s population has grown from the few persons who settled in Willshire to approximately 30,000. Where the 406 square miles were covered by swamp and virgin forests, there are now more than a quarter million acres in farm land divided into 12 townships. Where early settlers worried about trips to the mills in Piqua over rough trails, there are now ribbons of highways connecting to modern airports for international travel.
Van Wert is named in honor of Isaac Van Wart, a hero of the Revolutionary War. Born in the farm country of Greenbaugh, New York,near the village of Elmsford. Van Wart's exact birthdate is not recorded, but his tombstone declares that he died at the age of sixty nine.
Van Wart married Rachel Storm (1760–1834), a daughter of Elmsford's most prominent family (from whom the settlement's original name, "Storm's Bridge", was derived). He divided his time between his family, his farm, and his church (in time, he became an elder deacon of th Dutch Reformed Church). Van Wart's body was buried in the cemetery of the Elmsford Reformed Church in Elmsford, New York.
Despite his bucolic lifestyle, Van Wart joined the volunteer militia when New York was a battle zone of the Revolution. Overnight on 22–23 September 1780, he joined John Paulding and David Williams in an armed patrol of the area. The three men seized a travelling British officer, Major John Andre in Tarrytown, New York,, at a site now called Patriot's Park. Holding him in custody, they discovered documents of André's secret communication with Benedict Arnold. The militiamen, all local farmers of modest means, refused André's considerable bribe and instead delivered him to army headquarters. Arnold's plans to surrender West Point to the British were revealed and foiled, and André was hanged as a spy.
With George Washington's personal recommendation, the United States Congress awarded Van Wart, Paulding and Williams the first military decoration of the United States, the silver medal known as the Fidelity Medallion. Each of the three also received federal pensions of $200 a year, and prestigious farms awarded by New York State.
The three militiamen were highly celebrated in their lifetimes. Among other honors, each of the men had his name given to a county in the new state of Ohio: VGan Wert County, bearing a common alternate spelling of the name.
Flower Power: Peony History
The beautiful peony holds special significance in the history of Van Wert. In 1930, a prominent local businessman, Charles Wassenberg, became interested in growing peonies in his backyard. Soon his garden had expanded to cover 2 acres and he was selling and shipping peony tubers throughout the United States and to foreign countries. Eventually it became necessary for him to move his farm to a 30-acres site on East Lincoln Highway. During this time Van Wert became known as the “Peony Capital of the World.”
At about the same time, Van Wert began a celebration of the peony, known as the Peony Festival, drawing thousands of visitors to the area each spring. Today, the festival continues the first weekend in June every year.