Owl Creek Bank

Some early settlers preferred to hoard gold coins instead of trusting their wealth to wildcat banks, many of which collapsed in the Panic of 1819. Mount Vernon had one of these institutions, which issued its own currency. This original piece of legal tender for the Owl Creek Bank in 1816 can be found in the Knox County Museum in Mount Vernon.

MOUNT VERNON -- Science can tell us what we are. Religion or philosophy can tell us why we are. History can tell us who we were.

The only thing that can tell us who we are right now is the stories and songs that we value. That's why it's important to delve into the folklore our local culture is built upon.

The problem is there are times when it's hard to tell if the stories are built on much of anything. That's why there was a movement among historians in the 20th century to remove folklore from serious history study. I can understand the urge to restrict history to documentable fact, but the truth is, it takes a lot of blood out of the veins of history if you do that.

I have made it one of my life projects to value the old stories while trying to find the bones of truth buried somewhere beneath the exaggerations, because there is a reason each story has survived: something about each tale speaks to us on a deep level.

But two related stories from the Ebersole family in early Knox County history leave the researcher mostly empty-handed. The first story is that of the miser Jacob Ebersole. Ebersole was born in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and fought in the Revolutionary War in Col. Alexander Loury's 7th Battalion.

After the war, he married Magdalene Wittmer in 1785 and started a family. They moved further west with their baby, and settled in Erie County, Pennsylvania, and had more children.

Finally, they moved to Knox County, Ohio, somewhere around 1812, and settled in the countryside near Fredericktown. The one documentable historical statement about Ebersole being a miser comes from A. Banning Norton's chatty A History of Knox County, Ohio, from 1779 to 1862.

It's the kind of book that gives modern historians heart palpitations because it's full of unsubstantiated stories and vague comments based on general knowledge that has later been lost. Banning Norton's full comment is as follows:

Jacob Ebersole was an eccentric old settler, of miserly disposition, who lived close and mean to accumulate money to look at. After his death, over $2,000 in coin was found hidden away by him — some under an old anvil block in a smith shop, and another lot in an old chest, under some rubbish.

Banning Norton was writing this about 30 years after Ebersole's death, and he doesn't detail whether he knew Ebersole personally or — more likely — is merely repeating an old story. Just how eccentric Ebersole was isn't quantified. The only other mention of him in this history book is to describe him as one of the early settlers of the Fredericktown area.

He is mentioned adjacent to the Quakers who were so prominent in the settlement of the area, but he, perhaps significantly, never seems to be grouped with them.

Whatever his relationship with the Quakers, Ebersole is buried in their cemetery on Zolman Road, once the graveyard of their meeting house, along with his descendants. It's not clear exactly when the cemetery stopped being specifically for the church and when it was opened to the public.

The spirit of inclusiveness may have opened it to others from the beginning.

So it's said that Jacob Ebersole hoarded money. The comment that he lived “close and mean” to gather his wealth suggests a hardscrabble existence, by no means a rare thing in rural America, then or now.

And if he distrusted banks, he would have had reason. Banks were not federally insured in those days and there was a tremendous national panic in 1819 when a lot of banks failed during a nasty recession.

If Ebersole took to hiding money around the house, he was far from alone. That $2,000 in 1832 money is equivalent to over $58,000 today, so it is certainly a nice chunk of savings. I don't know if that qualifies Ebersole as a miser, though, especially if he lost money in 1819.

Banning Norton's description does make it sound like the money was discovered accidentally after Ebersole's death. But that would appear to be because Ebersole was not ill and did not expect to die, being hit by a falling tree on some land he was clearing.

He had no chance to tell the family where the money was. Furthermore, arguing against him being some kind of miser is the fact that he was still clearing land: he kept buying land with the money he saved, setting up his family for the future.

Nonetheless, the story existed. Perhaps Ebersole, with his Swiss-German background was an outsider among the Quakers, who were overwhelmingly English in background.

If, like many German-speaking families, the Ebersoles did not speak English well, that would have isolated them from their surrounding community, and if Ebersole himself hoarded money instead of investing in the local banks, that would have made him even more of an outlier.

There is reason to think there's some truth underlying this outsider status. The other story I've been digging into this week is about Jacob's daughter Catherine, remembered in folklore as Katy. Katy was born in 1798 in Erie, Pennsylvania, and came with the family to Knox County as she was just entering her teens.

According to the story recorded in A. J. Baughman's History of Richland County from 1808 to 1908, Katy fell in love with a young man named Taylor Willits. Katy's father owned land from Fredericktown, all the way up to and past Palmyra, stretching over the border into Richland County.

Taylor Willits evidently lived between Palmyra and Bellville, but attended the Quaker Church. When the two youths declared their desire to marry, both families opposed the bond. The Willits were said to have objected to their son marrying a “worldly” (or, in other words, a “non-Quaker”) girl. Baughman's informant, a neighbor named Frank Caywood, said Jacob Ebersole darkly pronounced that the Dutch and the Quakers had never gotten along and never would.

Katy and Taylor, both having a strong sense of honor and allegiance to their families, decided to let their love remain unrequited.

According to Caywood, Taylor Willits was so broken by the situation, his health began to decline and he ended up dying from consumption before many years had passed. He had refused to marry anyone but Katy. Katy also refused to marry any other man.

When Jacob and Magdalene were gone, Katy inherited a piece of their property on what is today Ohio 13, just over the county line. She worked this farm, alone, for the rest of her life, until she passed away in 1877.

I was able to find documentation about Catherine Ebersole, who indeed never married. Taylor Willits is less certain. Caywood said that the young man died and was buried in the Quaker Cemetery between Palmyra and Fredericktown.

I was unable to find a stone for him there, though there are some other Willits buried there. The number of old, unreadable stones does nothing to rule out the possibility that the story is true, although I did turn up a genealogical record online of another Taylor Willits, who ended up moving west and marrying.

There is no strong evidence, however, that this other Taylor Willits ever lived in this area. It may simply be a common family name used by various distantly related branches.

Whatever the case, Jacob Ebersole and some of his family members are buried in the Quaker Cemetery, in the very southeast corner, as if trying to keep their distance from the true believers. The Willits are buried in the opposite corner.

We are left to wonder why these stories stuck for so many years: one a story of the folly of the love of money, the other a broken-heart story of love denied.

Support Our Journalism

Our content is free and always will be - but we rely on your support to sustain it.