The Square in Mansfield is a pretty tame place today: manicured, mowed, planted and watered, carefully honed to public park perfection. It has taken 200 years for the place to reach this state of polish.
It started out as an anonymous five-acre plot in the vast reaches of an endless wilderness; the square shape of it delineated only by four wooden stakes pounded into the forest floor between oaks and maples in a high-canopied, shady hilltop.
In order for the square lines to be carved into public civilization, all those trees had to be cut down.
So, for the first generation or two of its existence, the Square was uniquely characterized by an uncharacteristically sunny place in the forest, and a whole lot of stumps.
Some of these stumps were historic. One of them actually made an appearance in the national spotlight many years after it no longer even existed. Here are three stumps that were rooted as landmarks in the timeline of the Square.
When the men who founded Mansfield arrived at the site in 1808 to lay out the Square, the wilderness hilltop was simply primeval forest: untouched ancient trees that could be hundreds of feet tall and dozens of feet in girth. This climax hardwood forest had a very high canopy that kept the ground below relatively clear of secondary growth, so that the original Square was already park-like, with natural beds of wildflowers.
These trees standing in downtown were hundreds of years old, and had been rooted in place since before Columbus landed in the New World, so it was no small task to get them to move out of the way.
In the first years of the new village there were fewer than a half-dozen log cabins built, and available wood-choppers were in short supply, so downtown Mansfield remained a shady place.
All that changed in 1812.
As the western edge of the American frontier, Mansfield was particularly vulnerable to attack when the War of 1812 brought hostilities to Ohio in August. Accordingly, by September there were two blockhouses built for defense in the Square: each of which took some of the trees off the hilltop, but not enough to significantly alter the skyline.
In November however, a whole army arrived on the scene that changed forever the balance of shade on the Square. They were 2,000 militia volunteers from Pennsylvania under the command of Brig. Gen Richard Crooks; they marched onto the Mansfield highland with 30 Conestoga wagons—each pulled by a team of six horses. It was a formidable crowd to house in a town that barely even existed yet.
Crooks’ army arrived in Mansfield far ahead of its artillery and supply wagons, so they set up camp on the Square to wait for their provisions.
There were 2,000 men on the Square from November 12 to December 10 with nothing to do; which was tedious for them but very fortunate for Mansfield, because they occupied their time by clearing the forest.
The chopping began on the east end of the Square until the newly exposed earth was churned into deep mud; and then they worked on the west end.
When Crooks’ army marched away to war in December 1812, the Square was utterly transformed. They arrived in a dense forest, and left behind a village site…and hundreds of stumps.
Stump # 1
Mansfield was situated in the center of Richland County because it was intended from the very start to serve as the center of local government. So, from the moment of its very inception, the town necessarily had to have a post office.
It would be years before an actual building was designated in downtown to receive and distribute the US Mail, but pioneers in earliest Mansfield established a secure spot on the Square where postal delivery personnel could place arriving letters: it was a huge hollow tree on its side, like a tunnel out of the weather.
Years later, settlers talked about the giant white oak tree fallen in the public ground where they went to get their mail. It was situated in the northwest quadrant of the Square, and during the War of 1812, it lay in the space between the blockhouses.
On the day of the week when mail was scheduled to arrive, folks would assemble together near the public stump to await their delivery guy. The newspapers that arrived in town were necessarily several weeks old, but during the war every bit of information was vital to the settlers; so as soon as the mailman came and the paper was in hand, the civic postal log was repurposed to fill a different need: it became the community podium.
A man who knew how to read English was hoisted up on top of the log, and he served as Mansfield’s first news broadcaster.
Stump # 2
When the town was young and barely carved from the wilderness, the punishment established by the local judicial system for drunk and disorderly conduct was simple: every offender had to serve a number of hours doing public service in the town Square by removing stumps.
One day there was a sweaty man out in the Square hacking away at a maple stump and the judge walking by says, “Hey Joe, you haven’t been sentenced to any hard labor for drinking,” and Joe replies, “Yeah but I plan to make a spectacle of myself tonight, so I’m paying my fine in advance.”
Stump # 3
There is an expression in the American language that derived from just exactly this era of pioneer history: it refers to any public orator as a “stump speaker.” In today’s usage, the term generally indicates someone speaking about politics; but in early America anyone with something to say could give a “stump speech” by stepping up above the heads of the crowd onto a tree stump.
In this case, in Mansfield of the 1820s, that speech maker was a traveling preacher; and the stump he spoke from on the Square was one of the famous remnants of Richland’s primal forest.
This particular stump became famous because it served to lift the feet of not only the anonymous wilderness preacher, but also the bare foot of a well-known American icon of the frontier: Johnny Appleseed.
In folklore and American mythology he is known by the Appleseed name, but in Mansfield during the age of stumps he was called John Chapman.
His fame as a frontier saint grew and flourished during his lifetime, but when he died in 1845 Chapman’s reputation and deeds began to fade into obscurity until 1871, when a nationally prominent magazine published a biographic reminiscence that revived his reputation, and brought his name to new generations in a light that only grew brighter with each successive wave of US culture.
The 1871 article, which appeared in Harper’s Monthly Magazine, told anecdotes of Chapman’s life, illustrated with carefully designed etchings that defined the popular conception of ‘Johnny Appleseed’ for many decades afterward.
One of the Harper illustrations presented the Mansfield Square to the nation for all posterity; and more particularly, enshrined in American literature forever one of the famous Central Park stumps.