The village of Yellow Springs was named in honor of a spring which has been well-known for centuries. It is said that the Shawnee called it “cool as the morning air and with the golden tint of the setting sun.”
The Shawnee visited the spring with some regularity since it was located only a few miles from Old Chillicothe and not far from their village on Mad River.
Lewis Davis was the first settler to live near the spring. Legend says that he was informed about the yellow water from a Shawnee and then made his way from Old Chillicothe along the Indian trail to the site. He camped there several days and then constructed a log cabin nearby. He described the area as being a garden spot of health and beauty. When others learned about the wonderful spring they also built cabins in the area which became known as Forest Village.
General Benjamin Whiteman platted some lots in the area about 1820, calling the area Ludlow. A few houses and a saw mill were erected nearby.
Another early settlement was the Owenites. This was a group of about 200 free-thinking folks who erected a large building about 1825 as a common residence. They worked together and divided the fruits of their labor equally among themselves. They only lived there about two years. Apparently some wanted to enjoy the benefits, but declined to provide the labor and then a severe winter brought near-starvation.
Elisha Mills was born in Connecticut and then moved with his family to Cincinnati in 1826. The next year, he secured property near the spring and soon decided that this could be a most profitable venture.
He spent $7,000 to build a hotel, in the hope that people would come from miles away to enjoy the springs along with the pleasant shade trees and the cool summer breezes. His plan was to make this the only summer resort in Ohio. Just in time for the summer season in March 1829 Cincinnati papers announced the opening of the Watering Place, under the direction of Elisha Mills.
The huge house featured a 200-foot long piazza. Also on the property were six cottages, a billiard house, two bowling alleys and a stable to accommodate horses, either those brought by guests or specifically available for the use of the guests.
Visitors came from as far away as New York and New England to drink and bathe in the water which was declared to be a specific for dyspepsia. Edward Everett described The Watering Place with these words “this lovely spot where everything seems combined that can delight the eye, afford recreation and promote health.”
Elisha’s son William was born in 1822. He was enthusiastic about the community of Yellow Springs and in 1840 built the first brick house in the village. Two years later, he began construction on another much finer home which was called Mills House. At first his father scolded him for building such a fine house in a swampy area, but he was able to drain the ground and beautifully landscape it so that it became a show place in the town.
Judge Mills, as he was called because he was often retained by county judges to settle ordinary local cases, was distressed that the town was not attracting new residents and businesses. When it was noted that a railroad line was to begin in Cincinnati and then would be constructed to pass between Xenia and Springfield probably by way of Clifton, he was very excited at the prospect. He felt that Yellow Springs would grow if the railroad passed through the village. However, only 12 miles of track had been laid when the construction funds ran out and work ceased.
Judge Mills went to Boston and succeeded in raising $500,000 for the construction. Because of his efforts, the tracks were laid through Yellow Springs with the first train passing through in 1846. The residents were delighted.
Mills built a three-story machine shop, the largest and best equipped in the state at the time. Soon a limestone quarry opened near the railroad tracks and then a brick-making business and a saw mill were added. He continued to encourage other businesses to locate in Yellow Springs. A wealth and generous man, he donated land for several different churches.
The “water cure” opportunities continued to bring visitors to town on the railroad, but perhaps Judge Mills is best known for his work in helping to establish Antioch College. The people of Yellow Springs were most anxious to have an institute of higher learning in their village. Judge Mills represented the residents as a Sub-Committee meeting at Enon in January 1852. At that time, he was empowered to offer $30,000 and twenty acres for the proposed new campus. He maintained that the advantage of easy rail transportation, the healthful atmosphere and the inexpensive living costs made this an ideal place. The committee agreed.
When the decision was made to locate in Yellow Springs he donated 20 acres of land and paid more than $20,000 of the amount pledged. Unfortunately he lost his wealth later in life, but Judge Mills was considered to be one of the most important men behind the development of Yellow Springs.
Joan Baxter is a local resident and weekly historical columnist.