If it hadn’t been for Miner Spicer, where would we be?
One of the most important milestones in local history is passing this month without the faintest trumpet of fanfare. The arrival 200 years ago of a Connecticut gentleman to the tangled forest of Ohio helped blaze a trail for the founding of Akron, although technically he never lived in the city.
In September 1811, Spicer arrived by ox cart with his family to settle a 260-acre site purchased from the Connecticut Land Co. The 35-year-old pioneer carved out a clearing in Portage Township (now Akron) and built a log cabin “about 40 rods” southeast of the present-day intersection of Spicer and Carroll streets.
Hundreds of American Indians lived in the region, but Spicer was the first white settler in the township. In History of the Western Reserve (1910), author Harriet Taylor Upton describes Spicer, born in 1776, as “a man of unflagging industry and stanch character.”
“He was widely and favorably known in the pioneer community and exercised much influence in connection with public affairs, as he was a man of strong mentality and well fortified convictions,” Upton writes.
Joining Spicer on the difficult trek overland were his brother Amos Spicer, friend Paul Williams and their families. The six-wagon train left Norwich, Conn., in July 1811 and arrived in Portage Township three months later.
Spicer traveled with his wife, Cynthia, and their children Avery, 11, Lucinda, 10, Cynthia, 8, Phoebe, 6, Temperance, 3, Emily, 2, and Lydia, 4 months. The queries of “Are we there yet?” must have been interminable.
The family left New England behind and started anew in a wilderness teeming with bears and wolves. Spicer chopped down trees to build his cabin, sealed the logs with clay and constructed a plank floor and clapboard roof.
For better or worse, the Spicers were home.
Scary tale, happy ending
Historian Henry Howe relates a famous anecdote about Spicer in Historical Collections of Ohio (1854), a book written when the pioneer was alive.
“One night just before retiring, he heard someone call in front of his house, and went out and saw a large Indian with two rifles in his hand, and a deer quartered and hung across his horse. Spicer inquired what he wanted,” Howe writes.
Through broken English and pantomime, the Indian “finally gave him to understand that he wished to stay overnight,” a request “reluctantly granted.”
The Spicers kept a wary eye on their uninvited guest, who stored his rifles and tomahawk in a corner and hung up his deer carcass on a peg.
“The Indian cut out a piece of venison for Mrs. Spicer to cook for him, which she did in the usual way, with a liberal quantity of pepper and salt,” Howe writes. “He drew up to the table and ate but a mouthful or two.”
The Indian stretched out in front of the fireplace, presumably for the night, while the family prepared for bed. Spicer only pretended to fall asleep, though, because he wanted to make sure his clan was safe.
Sure enough, after a prolonged time, there was a stirring in the flickering light. Believing that the family had dozed off, the Indian quietly arose, crept to the corner and removed a gleaming knife.
Howe continues: “At this moment, Spicer was about putting his hand upon his rifle, which stood by his bed to shoot the Indian, but concluded to wait further demonstration, which was an entirely different one from what he had anticipated, for the Indian cut a piece of his venison, weighing about two pounds, and laying it upon the live coals until it was warmed through, devoured it and went to sleep. Mrs. Spicer’s cooking had not pleased him, being seasoned too high.”
The Indian wasn’t dangerous. He was just being polite!
More settlers followed Spicer’s trail to Ohio. They built cabins along present-day Exchange Street in a settlement known as Spicertown.
Family outgrows cabin
With the addition of sons Miner in 1813 and Hiram in 1816, the Spicer family of 11 was too large for a log cabin, so a frame house was constructed to replace the original home.
Spicer’s fingerprints are all over local history. He served as Portage Township trustee and justice of the peace. He was a major of the militia during the War of 1812, giving him the amusing title of “Major Miner.” On a high slope overlooking the growing community, he donated land for the creation of the Spicer Hill Burial Place.
In 1821, Spicer led a great hunt in the Copley swamp, whereby 200 hunters encircled the marsh and moved in for the kill. According to one account, hunters bagged 75 deer, four bears and two wolves.
Williams, Spicer’s travel companion of 1811, co-founded Akron in 1825 with Gen. Simon Perkins of Warren. That same year, work began on the Ohio & Erie Canal.
Spicer’s wife, Cynthia, died in 1828 at age 50. Six months later, he married widow Hannah Williams, Cynthia’s sister.
Miner Spicer was 78 years old when he died on Sept. 11, 1855. He was buried in Spicer Hill Burial Park.
Residents of Spicertown resisted joining Akron because they didn’t wish to pay higher taxes, but they finally relented in 1865, allowing the bustling canal town to annex the land.
In 1871, Spicer’s heirs agreed to donate land for the creation of Buchtel College, the forerunner of the University of Akron.
The preferred site was Spicer Hill Burial Place, which had a beautiful view of the valley. Two acres of graves were moved in March to the Akron Rural Cemetery, now Glendale, so ground could be broken for the college on Middlebury Street (now Buchtel Avenue).
Legend is true
So, yes, the Halloween legend is true: the University of Akron was built on the site of a former graveyard.
“Major Miner Spicer, the original donor of the ground, died in 1855, being buried in a metallic coffin,” historian Samuel A. Lane writes in his Fifty Years and Over of Akron and Summit County (1892).
“On the transfer of his remains to the Akron Rural Cemetery, in 1871, on removing the slide from over the glass at the head of the casket, the friends were greeted with a view of the features of the old Major, in a perfect state of preservation, and looking as natural as when deposited in the grave nearly 16 years before.”
Spicer’s descendants continued to live on the family homestead for more than a century. For decades, a large stone marked the site of the original log home on First Cabin Court, a short route that connected Nash and Vine streets.
In the early 1950s, construction workers gouged out the neighborhood to create the Akron Expressway. If any settlers were to arrive by ox cart today, they would have to dodge tractor-trailers on state Route 8.
From Spicer Street to Spicer School to Spicer Hall to Spicer Theater, the pioneer family’s name has resonated in the community. This month quietly marks the bicentennial of when it all began.
Mark J. Price is a Beacon Journal copy editor. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or send email to email@example.com.