MES Visit to the Old Stone Fort
by Jim Leslie and Weldon Mortine
One of the great mysteries of Ohio history is the identity of the builder of the Old Stone Fort located on the south bank of the swift flowing Tuscarawas River in Coshocton county, a mile from the hamlet of Isleta. MES member Weldon Mortine, a native of nearby Newcomerstown, has taken a special interest in the Fort and led fifteen members and friends one wintry Saturday, February 10, 2007 on an inspiring visit to this lonely edifice in the Tuscarawas Valley.
The group first met at the nearby Raven’s Inn and Winery, and after a wonderful lunch Weldon talked a few minutes about the Fort and introduced his compatriot Margaret Lowe. Margaret graciously gave an update of the Fort. Charles Green, a nephew of Lonzo Steelwell Green, author of Tales of the Buckeye Hills, gave a short talk about the book’s chapter on Isleta’s Mystery Fort
Thusly fortified with food, drink and motivation, the group caravanned to the Old Stone Fort to wonder and opine about the mysterious building in the chilled, crisp air and thin covering of snow.
We next traveled to Newcomerstown to visit its museum, officially called the Temperance Tavern Museum, after the prior establishment business. The museum is well done and stirred a lot of interest among the visitors, especially the displays of Newcomerstown favorite two sons, baseball player Cy Young and former high school football coach, Woody Hays. Weldon’s son-in-law Pat Cadle and local school principal was the guide
Of equal interest was the in-progress Old Town of Yesteryears exhibit going in the recently acquired building behind the museum. Wayne Mortine, twin brother of Weldon discussed his duplication of the family grocery store front and guided us around the other exhibits.
Most historians agree that the Stone Fort is the oldest existing building west of the Appalachian Mountains, or as Coshocton countians say, no one has challenged it. The identity of the builder is debatable and centers on three candidates – French explorer d’Iberville, the first British fur trader George Croghan, and finally Isaac Evans, original owner of the farm where the Old Fort stands. Although occasionally referred to as the Evans Fort, the latter choice is doubtful for descendants of Isaac Evans say the fort was an antique when he first saw it upon arrival in the area about 1800.
The French Ottawa government in the 1700s sent d’Iberville to build forts to the Mississippi to establish French claims on the Ohio territory. Several such forts were built; one he recorded, was located northwest of the Ohio River and is usually considered to be Fort Sandusky, but could be our Old Stone Fort.
The evidence for George Croghan seems the strongest. Paul Goudy, a historian from Tuscarawas County, spent many months in England in 1975 researching library and museum records on the subject and arrived at the opinion that the French did not build the Fort. His research found that the only time the French were in Ohio was in the period of 1752-1759, seven years after the arrival of Croghan in about 1745.
Croghan gained the respect of the Indians by learning and accepting their lifestyle, and had married an Indian. Goudy also found evidence that the Indians had asked Croghan to build a fort for protection from the French and records also show that he ordered two cannons, one sent to Fort Piqua in western Ohio and the other presumably to Coshocton – here at the Stone Fort.
More evidence for Croghan is that he did indeed build a stone trading post at Pickaway in 1750. His move here was prompted by the French bounty on his head for $1500 – a fortune in those days. A year later, 1751, the French did catch up and destroy his stone trading post and the Pickaway Indian village built alongside the post. Croghan survived to trade another day; dying in 1782 near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania after a long and colorful life.
Its tiny size, about fourteen feet square inside, hardly qualifies it as a fort in a military sense, but it could be the right size to ward off bandits or renegade Indians for a few days. There was a loft above for storage with a second story door opening to the outside. Presumably there was a ladder access from the inside too.
The floor has always been dirt and dossier Bill Cleaves got a reading indicating a rectangular feature at the center. He got a circular feature indication outside the Fort to the west and also refound the well (filled-in a number of years ago) about ten feet south of the ground level entrance on the south side.
The stone for the 22-inches thick walls was quarried north of the Fort, across the Tuscarawas River. The north, east and west walls have vertical gun slits, or embrasures; the south side has the only ground entrance, already mentioned above. The opening is 72-inches high and 37-inches wide. It is said the original door was a double door; one swung inward, the other outward, each being about 3-inches thick. The stone walls on the east and west sides are gabled upward to the peak of the roof; and the east side had the above mentioned second-floor outside entrance.
There is a small mystery hole-through-the-wall, about 8-inches square, 20-inches above the ground on the south side of the Fort, near the eastern corner that has elicited much speculation as to its function. Also, because the well is located “outside” the Fort proper, the idea of a small circling stockade fence to enclose it “inside” the Fort was entertained by the visitors.
Over the years a number of old rifle balls and Indian arrow heads have been uncovered around the fort. About 1918, Calvin Babcock plowed up an old bronze compass, thought to be French. Unscrewing the lid he found the compass still in working order. Miss Rena Emler of West Lafayette owned it for awhile and it is now at the Johnson-Humrickhouse Museum in the historic canal town of Roscoe Village at Coshocton.
About 1974-1976, Cecil Lemmon and Margaret Lowe, local citizens and historical investigators dug a trench along a fence that leads (eastward) to county road CR 254. Though amateurs they closely followed proper archaeological rules, measuring the location of each uncovered artifact, screening the dirt for any missed small items, logging all the results and completing the Ohio Archaeological Inventory form for the Ohio Historic Preservation Office, at the Ohio Historical Society.
Among the artifacts collected – Prehistoric: 1 Archaic corner-notched point (well worn), 1 small broken flint knife, and a number of flint fragments and chips.
Historic artifacts: One lead ball (bullet); buttons some of which may be military - a silver, a pewter and a brass one-eyelet buttons, a bone 4-hole button, a small rectangular lead bar with a hole through one end (initials or part of a name crudely scratch on it), 1 small light-blue bead (trade?), pieces of Colonial era ceramic pipe stems, and some small china shards.
The artifacts were turned over to the R.A.P. Office at the Kent State University, Tuscarawas Branch, New Philadelphia.
In 1952 the heavy black walnut lintel over the south door, the only original board left in the Fort at that time, was removed to the Johnson-Humrickhouse Museum.
The Fort has seen the ravages of benign neglect over the many years since Croghan left in 1750.
By 1952, when owner Manches Atkinson agreed to deed the Fort and an access right-of-way to the Coshocton County Historical Society on condition that it would be restored to its original condition as nearly as possible within a year, only about half of the stone walls remained standing.
Newspaper appeals raised most of the $2,000 needed. Restoration relied on a few old photographs and descriptions by early settlers and historians. (In Tales of the Buckeye Hills, Lonzo Steelwell Green, Printing Arts Press, 1963) Mr. Atkinson relates that he had heard his grandmother, Rebecca Loos, say when she was a young girl (1840s), all the woodwork in the Fort was black walnut, and the floor boards of the upper loft section being three-inches thick rested on ten-by-ten sleepers, and the broadaxe hewing marks were still present in some of the beams.
He is also quoted as saying he was the one to plow out the French compass just north of the Fort and also over the years found many bullets, interestingly grouped mostly to both the northeast and the northwest, indicating much fighting had occurred.
The 1952 restoration was faithfully completed as authentic as possible. Skilled stone masons and carpenters were engaged and used native stone and timbers. The clapboards for the roof were red oak and split with a pioneer frow. Wooden pins joined the roof framework members. Door fasteners and hinges were made of wood.
Appropriate historical markers were placed and ready for the Coshocton County Sesquicentennial Old Stone Fort Dedication Ceremony held on May 14, 1953.
Fifty years have passed now and the Fort restoration is still basically sound. But one wall has shifted and the mortar all around needs re-pointing. Weldon hopes to have it completed this summer. The ground entrance door top hinge has broken allowing the door to sag into the soil has been repaired at this writing.
A mobile home and large propane tank have been placed on the property a few feet south of the Fort and spoils the view. Agriculture continues close to the north and west edges of the Fort.
The last uncertainty is: who is the owner now. The previous owner, the Coshocton Historical Society dissolved a few years ago. The local Scout Troop cuts the grass during the summer and other spirit-minded historians try to keep interest alive in the community.