MOUNT VERNON -- Cavallo's glory days were intense but brief. Founded in the 1830s to serve as a port on the Walhonding Canal, Cavallo at its height boasted four large warehouses, and it was Knox County's main port of goods.
For a town, Cavallo sure got around. According to James Robert Hopkins' Knox Folklore and Fact, the town was originally founded in Knox County as Butlertown in 1837 on the south side of Flat Run Road.
Ohio Ghost Towns No. 35: Knox County, however, describes the original site as being “the northwest quarter of the southeast quarter of Section 21” in Union Township, which must be a typo, for that would put it some distance from the river. Hopkins' description would place it in exactly the right spot in Section 20, and a 1900 map archived by the county surveyor indeed shows an Elizabeth Butler as landowner there.
But Butlertown soon became officially known as Cavallo, Cavalla, or Carvallo (according to different early sources), though it wasn't destined to stay there.
At that time, navigation was made easier on the Mohican River by the use of canal locks that bypassed the main river channel in places difficult to get through. The Walhonding Canal was the resulting structure, stretching from just north of Cavallo to Coshocton, where it connected to the Erie Canal.
When a dam was built to ensure water flow into the lock on the east side of the river, Cavallo was put in danger of flooding. Thus, the decision was made to move it across the river to the opposite shore of the Mohican River, where the ground stands several feet higher.
The new location put Cavallo in Coshocton County. It thrived there throughout the 1840s, when Knox County was the leading wool producer in the United States, thanks to the extensive sheep ranching done in the hills of the eastern part of the county. Hopkins said that local legend in Cavallo used to claim that the town was so busy, it was supposedly once considered for the site of the state capital.
Other tall tales had it that Cavallo was in the running for Knox County seat (30 years after the founding of the county!).
Hopkins noted that there are extensive caverns in the hills above the town which were said to have been used for hiding sheep during the days of rustling, and later on, liquor stills during the time of Prohibition. Hopkins tells the story of the Kit Kat Club, an alleged speakeasy placed in Cavallo so that the proprietors could hear the sound of anyone crossing the noisy metal bridge and look to see who it was. If it looked like lawmen, they'd have time to hide the booze before the agents got there.
Newspaper columnist and blogger Irv Oslin has been canoeing area rivers for 39 years, often stopping to camp along the way.
“I've always enjoyed camping near Cavallo, even more so as I've come to learn some of its history,” Oslin said. “At times, I can't fathom that this quiet, somewhat secluded place once bustled with activity — some of it on the shady side.”
Oslin said that about 25 or 30 years ago, he met a man on the old bridge over the Mohican River at Brinkhaven, upstream of Cavallo. The man had the long-time resident's knowledge about just how lively the old canal town used to be.
“He told me many a farm boy lost his virginity at Cavallo,” Oslin said. Irv's impressions of the Mohican valley, as well as some of his gorgeous photographs, can be seen on his Word Press blog: https://irvoslin.wordpress.com/.
The Walhonding Canal was not maintained for very long, but its towpath became the bed for the Wally Railroad in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The only boost for Cavallo, though, was that airship rides from Akron were said to have stopped there to transfer passengers to the railroad.
By that time, though, Cavallo's population had already dwindled to two families, headed by Soloman Gearner and Nelson Thatcher.
Maryland native Cuthbert Workman planted roots nearby after stopping in Ohio to visit cousins after he had made an unsuccessful attempt at gold mining in California during the Gold Rush of 1848. While in the area, he met Nancy Conkle, married her, and stayed in Cavallo the rest of his days.
Today, things have quietened down in Cavallo. Only a few structures remain, and it appears to function more as a hunting camp than a town. But memories linger about days long past, when it was a rowdy canal town.