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The BG News
BG24 Newscast
November 30, 2023

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BG’s swampy past topic of presentation

Better known for its fields than forests, it’s hard for many to imagine a northwest Ohio where the trees grew so thick the leaves blocked all sunlight.

But this Ohio did exist.

Janet Rozick, historic programs specialist with Toledo Metroparks described obstacles such as inadequate roads and a densely wooded, swampy environment teeming with insects and disease as problems that caused regions like Wood County to be the last portion of Ohio settled by Europeans.

Rozick’s presentation, “Farming the Great Black Swamp,” was part of the monthly Curator series program at the Wood County Historical Museum.

“This land was so impossible to settle, even the Native Americans avoided it,” Rozick said. “All of these factors helped to retard settlement.”

Randy Brown, curator at the museum, said that early settlers went through “great difficulty to clear the land and make it worthwhile to even stay out here.”

Rozick defined the Great Black Swamp that covered northwest Ohio – as an area of about 30 miles north to south and about 120 miles east to west. Geologists considered all the parts of northwest Ohio that had a high clay content to be part of the Great Black Swamp, because that clay was responsible for holding the water in place.

Rozick explained to an audience of about 40 that water sits on top of clay and doesn’t seep through – which created the perfect conditions for the swamp.

It wasn’t until the War of 1812 that soldiers blazed one of the first paths through the region. Rozick said what is known today as U.S. Route 68 and State Route 25 was originally a road troops used in during the war that was about 15 to 20 miles long and later became the first postal route in the area.

The only other cleared path available to settlers was the Maumee Western-Reserve Road, which Rozick said today has become “roughly Route 20,” wasn’t finished until 1827. Even after that, it was deemed only tolerable for travel during the summer season, from July to September.

“It was difficult to navigate and wagon wheels just sunk into the mud, which was knee to belly deep,” Rozick said.

Travelers using the Maumee Western-Reserve had to stop so frequently that taverns began to pop up every mile. Tavern owners would pour extra water on the road to “encourage more business,” Rozick said.

Settlers later tried to combat the poor travel conditions by laying planks of oak down in boardwalk fashion on the roads. But when the wood got wet, the planks quickly began to deteriorate.

“People could literally see the road breaking up and floating away in front of them,” Rozick said.

Coming up with clever ways to clear trees was also a challenge settlers encountered. When hacking down huge trees with axes became too much work, they resorted to tactics like “girdling,” which involved stripping the bark off of the tree and waiting for it to die.

Settlers also slashed or cut trees down the middle and allowed the wind to eventually blow them over.

Rozick said logging became a hobby for early settlers and people would arrive from neighboring settlements to work together on clearing the land.

“They had so many trees that it never occurred to them that they might run out,” she said.

But despite the social affair this activity became, Rozick said the process was not only physically strenuous, but dangerous because it exposed settlers to disease and put them at the mercy of insects that swarmed the swamps.

“You’d go to swat a mosquito and pull away a bloody hand,” she said.

The task of clearing trees and turning land into a productive place to farm was so difficult that the U.S. government had to begin offering large amounts of acres for cheap prices to settlers. The Land Act of 1800 priced land at $2 an acre as long as settlers bought at least 320 acres. Settlers then had four years to pay for those acres in four installments.

But Rozick said the installment plan didn’t work to many settlers’ advantages.

“If you took a year to get all your stumps out of the ground and the next year you had a drought and couldn’t pay your installments, you were already two years behind in payments,” she said.

Another problem, according to Rozick, was the government could not prevent “squatters” from settling land they did not purchase from the government, but simply showed up and claimed. And much of the “good” land was bought from the government was never cleared and farmed buy the buyers.

Settlers who did manage to clear their land successfully and begin farming on it generally didn’t make much, if any, profit.

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