Two area historical societies resumed their Historical Show and Tell Series last week, presenting a brief history on the buildings and enterprises that once called Donnelsville home. Local historian Scott Suther delivered a presentation on Donnelsville history, describing a surprisingly robust history of the little village of fewer than 500.
The monthly series began last year, and continues as a partnership between the New Carlisle Public Library and the New Carlisle and Medway Area Historical Societies. Each month, the public is invited to attend a free presentation on local history as delivered by a local historian. They can also bring any unidentified artifacts that they’re curious about to see if the local experts can explain what they are.
Last Thursday evening, nearly two dozen people traveled to the library to hear Suther’s history of Donnelsville—describing a once bustling industry in the little town from the mid-1800s up until modern times, with Donnelsville natives piping up from the audience to contribute. Suther projected several old maps of the village showing numbered lots, as he essentially took the audience on a sort of walk down the historical street, naming the buildings as well as what they once housed or by whom they were owned. In the 1830s and 1840s, Suther said that lots along the main road sold for around $400 apiece, but noted that the lots farther back off the main street went for only $30 or $40 each. One of the grander homes along the main road at that time was built by John Lohnes in the late 1830s. Lohnes operated a Donnelsville blacksmith shop, Suther said, adding that the village also was once home to a molasses mill in 1897.
He also described the tragic fate that befell one Donnelsville proprietor as he journeyed to New Orleans on a business trip. Suther said that Samuel Donnel opened the American House Hotel in 1837. To supplement his hotel business, Donnel also bought crops to take to market, sometimes journeying as far away as the southern coasts to sell goods. Suther said that Donnel and another man would load their crops aboard barges and paddle down the Mad River to Dayton, where they would catch the Great Miami and then the Ohio River before coming to the confluence of the mighty Mississippi, where they would float on down to New Orleans. He said that during one such trip, Donnel’s boat somehow became disabled and capsized, during which Donnel drowned but his companion made it safely to shore.
Suther said that after Donnel’s death, Peter Leffel then took over the hotel, and opened a saloon in one of the first-floor rooms.
“Then he started going to church and he took to religion, so he closed down the saloon and just kept the hotel,” Suther said.
He also touched on Donnelsville’s first fire department, saying that during their first year, the department went on 25 runs and saved around $100,000 worth of property. The first department fire truck, purchased in 1946, was a 1943 Mack Truck, Suther said.
Some of the most colorful history came from the audience Thursday night, as longtime Donnelsville residents shared their own stories. One man recalled the village’s centennial celebration held in 1950, saying the town went all out by bringing in a big Ferris Wheel and other rides. Another man said he remembered the outdoor movies shown in the summertime, when the village would hang large white sheets in the center of town and show free movies.
One man recalled a 1950s bar called the Rainbow Room, saying it was “run out of business by the good church-going ladies of the town after too many town fathers were caught hanging out there.”
Suther said that local historian Bill Berry will be the speaker at the next part of the series, which will be held in February. Call the library at 845-3601 for dates and times.