Harvey and Martha Devoe

Harvey Devoe, seen here with his wife Martha, kept a diary in 1861 that mentions a visit to Ankenytown, where he got his horse shod, most likely at Joseph Ankeny's blacksmith shop. Throughout 2020, History Knox will be traveling with Harvey Devoe, exploring the year and people he recorded.

ANKENYTOWN -- I had a great time Thursday night talking to folks at the Butler Historical Society. Their president, Lonnie Beveridge, invited me to come talk to them about Ankenytown, which I have written about here previously.

This is part of the society's effort to expand their scope and explore their neighborhood, a commendable idea.

I recounted A. Banning Norton's famous story about how Ankenytown supposedly got its nickname “Squeal” from residents being frightened of the sound of the first approaching locomotive with its steam whistle. One of the attendees said that he'd heard a version of the story that the name actually came from the squeal the railroad cars' wheels would make as they went around the curve in the tracks at Ankenytown.

Interestingly, Lonnie chimed in that Butler itself was at one point called “Squeal Gut” by the Indians. Frankly, the Norton story sounds like a folkloric tale made up to explain the name, and it instead probably has something to do with the early Delaware Indian name for nearby Butler, though at this late date, it would be hard to prove.

But that's why local history is fascinating: You never know who's going to hand you a new kernel of truth!

I talked at some length about the “frisky little Frenchman” (Norton) Celestin LeBlond, builder of the first mill in what is now Ankenytown.

LeBlond was an enthusiastic, if erratic, entrepreneur of the frontier period, who went broke building the mill and immediately sold it instead of trying to operate it himself.

Replenished periodically by substantial funds from his wealthy family in France, LeBlond finally found his stride in Bellville, where he operated a dry goods store until his death in 1851, leaving behind an estate—after all debts were paid—of $1,280.54.

According to Mount Vernon Nazarene University finance professor Timothy Chesnut, that's the equivalent of $42,700 today. Not bad for a guy whose early business attempts all flopped!

One question that always comes up about Ankenytown is, where did that name come from?

The place is not named after the founders, who included Amos Royce, Sylvester Clark, Abraham Leedy, and Warner Miller. Instead, everyone opted to name the place after the local blacksmith, George Ankeny. While that might sound odd, the fact was this blacksmith was a mover and shaker.

Ankeny, originally from Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, came to the area in the 1820s with his young family, including his wife, Susannah Brallier.

Ankeny must have been a natural leader, for he was elected justice of the peace for the area time and time again during the 1830s and 40s. In the 1840s, he served as a Knox County commissioner before becoming the state representative. So being a blacksmith was his vocation, but his avocation was clearly serving as a leader. After his retirement from politicking, his son Joseph picked up the tradition, serving as judge.

The naming of the community Ankenytown was perhaps the height of fame for George Ankeny. Sadly, though, he lived to see it decline, for after a two-and-a-half year period in the mid 1840s, the shopkeeper in Ankenytown, J. M. Robinson, decided he didn't want to be postmaster any more, and the job passed down the street to H. W. McGregor.

The difference, though, is that McGregor's store was located near that mill that Celestin LeBlond has built, which later was run by David Shaler. Thus the cluster of houses around this mill was known as Shalerville or Shaler's Mill. The post office took on the name of Shaler Mill, and the name Ankenytown became secondary as the village next door.

But over the next few decades, Shaler Mill declined and Ankenytown grew, not least because the B & O Railroad opted to put their depot in Ankenytown instead of a half mile away in Shalerville. By the 1880's, it was clear that Ankenytown was the real center of gravity as the two hamlets grew together to form one village, and the post office reverted to that name as Shaler's Mill was slowly forgotten.

I also talked some length in Butler about Fredericktown farmer Harvey Devoe, who left a diary of the year 1861 that has been published in an excellent annotated version by historian Alan Borer. Devoe gave us a glimpse of life in Ankenytown that year by noting in his diary that he stopped at the blacksmith there on Jan. 2, 1861, and got two new shoes for his horse, Doll, as he traveled north on a business trip to Wyandot County.

Though Devoe didn't mention the blacksmith by name, and we know George Ankeny passed away in 1851, it was probably George's son Joseph, who also took up the blacksmithing trade, according to the 1850 U. S. census.

It was so much fun recreating a day in the life of Harvey Devoe, I've decided to announce that starting with the first History Knox column of 2020, we're going to spend a year following Harvey's activities in one column per month, looking up the people and national events he refers to in that year leading up to the outbreak of the U. S. Civil War.

I've already made some connections to help flesh out that project with further information and photos, so I can't wait to jump in. History Knox thrives on bringing individual stories back to life.

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