Ohio worked its way up from a frontier outpost to an industrial and political powerhouse by the turn of the 19th century, and there was no better place to hear why than Chillicothe in 1903.
While this weekend's bicentennial celebration anchors a long and flashy bonanza to celebrate 200 years of the Buckeye State, the 100th celebration was big on one thing: speeches on Ohio's greatness. “What 100 years ago was a vast forest has now become the garden spot of our country,” then-Gov. George K. Nash told celebrants.
About 5,000 people converged on Chillicothe — the state's first capital — for 25 speeches on May 20 and 21, 1903, a Wednesday and Thursday. May was chosen for the celebration because of the weather.
Organizers weren't modest about their desires, with event Chairman Gen. J. Warren Keifer telling the crowd that his program would “furnish a relation of statehood-greatness not anywhere equaled in ancient or modern history.”
The May celebration hadn't been planned that far in advance. In 1900, the legislature balked at giving Toledo $1 million for a four-month centennial gala. Instead, lawmakers in 1902 set aside just $10,000 for the two days in Chillicothe.
While Toledoans stewed over not having any gala, Chillicothe leaders adorned their town with streamers and flags. Arches stretched over the city's main intersection, and columns flanked the main street down to a big tent in the city's park.
“It was a big celebration. All of the [town's] people were involved,” said Ross County historian Pat Medert.
The celebration had some pizzazz — bands, singing schoolchildren, fireworks, and a parade. And the school was converted to a makeshift museum with historic paintings and donated artifacts.
But the big draw were the words under the tent. An estimated 5,000 people listened to each of the 20-minute speeches, according to the official 730-page book of the proceedings by the Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society.
“Old and young, the learned scholar and the profound professor, the school boy, the gray-haired pioneer, the farmer from his field, the country laddie and his happy lassie by his side, all sorts and conditions of men, women and children, sat hour after hour listening patiently to speech after speech as the orators came and went,” the society chronicled.
Governor Nash — who helped kill the Toledo celebration — spent most of his speech enthralling the audience with the sad tale of Arthur St. Clair, the first governor of the Northwest Territory.
According to Nash, St. Clair had not only served bravely in George Washington's army, he had given up riches to help feed and equip it. He died in poverty and was buried with a “plain, brown sandstone monument.” To a roaring applause, Governor Nash proposed erecting a state monument for St. Clair.
Bishop Benjamin Arnett, an African-American former state legislator, asked Ohioans to continue the struggle for equal rights. “If you find a Negro man going to jail, let him go on like any other man, and hang him like any other man. But don't hang the wrong man and try him after he is hung,” he said.
U.S. Sen. Mark Hanna chronicled what he considered the most amazing story of all — Ohio's rise to become one of the great boom states of the industrial age — albeit telling the story without today's politically correct verbiage.
“But a few years over a century ago, this great state was a wilderness, inhabited by a race which knew not the meaning of the word ‘industry.' It remained for the sturdy Anglo-Saxon and their descendants to fell the tangled forests, to till the soil, to build the houses, and dig the mines,” he said.
The two-day affair ended with an evening band concert and fireworks, which ended just as rain poured onto a crowd of thousands.