By Joan Baxter
April is Poet’s Month. Greene County can boast several extraordinary poets, but today the story is about Coates Kinney who was born in New York in 1826. When he was 13, the family moved to Warren County to be near an uncle. Coates worked in the saw mill, and with the drone of the saw, he composed his early poetry. His brother laughed at him, so unfortunately the early work was destroyed.
The family moved to Waynesville in 1842. He attended school and apprenticed as a cooper, with little success. Next he worked in a woolen mill and then a saw mill. Changing careers, he taught school in Ridgeville and Mt. Holly for four years. He often went to the Mt. Holly cemetery so he could practice giving speeches, where he thought he was alone. Many years later, one of his students confessed that she had hidden in the cemetery to listen, though she never told Mr. Kinney.
He attended Antioch College, studying Greek and Latin then studied law with Thomas Corwin. He was admitted to the bar and practiced law in Cincinnati. However, he was more interested in journalism, so became the editor of a weekly paper in West Liberty. After he married, he and his wife moved to Illinois where he taught at Judson College.
The couple returned to Ohio when he became associate editor of the “Genius of the West” a literary magazine. His wife encouraged his literary endeavors, suggesting that he write poems, short stories and critical essays which were published in various magazines and papers. She lived only eight years after their marriage.
Next he became the Editor of the Xenia News, after Whitelaw Reid had moved on to other projects. At the beginning of the Civil War, he enlisted and was elected captain of a company, but in 1861 received a commission as Paymaster, with the rank of Major. He retired four years later having attained the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
While still serving in the army, he married Mary C. Allen. They became the parents of three daughters, Myra, Lestra and Clara. Their family home still stands on East Second Street in Xenia.
Following the war, he became the editor of the Xenia Torchlight, writing occasionally for the Cincinnati Times and the Ohio State Journal. In 1884, he became chief owner and editor of the Globe Republic in Springfield.
In 1881, he was elected to serve in the Ohio Senate. He served only one term, but was rated as the leading Republican speaker of that body.
The State of Ohio was about to celebrate its centennial. A 45 day celebration was scheduled to begin in Columbus on Sept. 4, 1888. Mr. Kinney had been invited to give the opening remarks.
The 1,500 children dressed in red, white and blue waved hand-held flags and sang a patriotic ode just before Mr. Kinney approached the podium. A newspaper reported: “A tall finely formed and erect gentleman, with flashing dark eyes, and with the most silvery head in that multitude of thousands, rose on the platform and delivered the ‘Ohio Centennial Ode’…The poet of Ohio’s Centennial, Colonel Coates Kinney of Xenia, spoke in a voice clear, strong an sonorous, and the audience signified their appreciation of a masterly production with rounds of applause. It was a great topic, the sublime occasion of a hundred years.”
He began his ode with “In what historic thousand years of man has there been builded such a state as this?”
In 1890 he traveled by ship to Italy. Each of the first ten days, he wrote a poem for his daughters which he published in a small booklet for their Christmas gift. He died in 1904 at the age of 77, and is buried beside his first wife in Corwin Cemetery.
His best known poem written in 1849 was “Rain on the Roof,” which was later set to music and became one of the most popular songs of the era. In his words, this is how it came about.
“I slept one night next the roof in the little farm cottage which our folks lived in and which has since been torn away and replaced. In the evening there came up a gentle rain, which pattered on the shingle roof two or three feet above my head, all the part of the night during which I was awake…”
Space will not allow the entire poem to be printed here, but here are a few stanzas.
“When the humid shadows hover over all the starry spheres and the melancholy darkness gently weeps in rainy tears.
What a bliss to press the pillow of a cottage chamber bed and lie listening to the patter of the soft rain overhead.
Every tinkle on the shingle has an echo in the ear, and a thousand dreamy fancies into busy being start, and a thousand recollections weave their air-threads into woof, as I listen to the patter of rain upon the roof.
Now in memory comes my mother as she used in years agone, to regard the darling dreamers ere she left them till the dawn. O! I feel her fond look on me as I list to this refrain which is played upon the shingles by the patter of the rain. “
Coates Kinney, writer, newspaper editor, politician and soldier was a man of many talents. He probably never expected that a poem which he composed while walking along a highway in Greene County would still be read and appreciated after more than 150 years.
Joan Baxter is a Greene County resident and long-time local historical columnist.