Yellow Springs; From the Shawnee Nation and its Coveted Healing Waters, to a Socialist Utopia and Progressive Village

 

Yellow Springs, Ohio is a part of the Dayton MSA and was known until the 1820s as Ludlow. It is named after the nearby spring in the Glen Helen Nature Preserve. The spring flows around 110 gallons per minute, and has such a high iron content that it continuously leaves yellow-hued deposits on its rock bed. 

My song for this blog, for no real reason this time, is “Oh!” by The Linda Lindas:

 

The Yellow Springs historic district and downtown village has become known as the “Hippie town of Ohio” due to liberal politics, open-minded culture, and the general style of the place.

For my dwellers of Southern Appalachia, it is much like Asheville in some ways but without the crowd. 

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The Shawnee Nation once ruled this region. One of the most revered Native Americans and Shawnee leader, Tecumseh, and his people knew the spring had the power to heal.

Tecumseh and other prominent Chiefs were known to visit the spring frequently as it flowed along what we know as Bullskin Trace, a popular Native American path that connected Lake Erie to the Ohio River.

A Connecticut lawyer named Elisha Mills and a Dayton man named Lewis Davis were just a few of the white settlers who rushed in after word got out, to buy up land and build homes near the spring. Immediately they began to advertise tourism to the spring and capitalized on its healing waters.  

Mills and his descendants went on to take credit for founding the town.

Meanwhile, Tecumseh sent a call to action out to nearby tribes to band together against white settlers that were killing them and stealing their land. Ultimately he died in 1813 in the Battle of Thames, and his cause was lost. 

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Postal records between 1817 and 1823 show that the Ludlow Post Office was open in the town until 1823 but I could not find information about when the branch opened or which other businesses may have been open in the area prior to the 1820s.

That was around the time when a Scottish man named Robert Owen and over one hundred families moved into Yellow Springs. Owen his followers promptly began building the socialist utopia of their dreams.

Under Owen’s direction, everyone in the community would work together for the common good and everyone would share the wealth.

Owen was quoted to have said: “I am come to this country to introduce an entirely new system of society; to change it from an ignorant selfish system to an enlightened social system which will gradually unite all individuals into one and remove all causes for contest between individuals,” 

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Owen had strong support from some unbelievable sources. He spoke before Congress and the Supreme Court and gained financial aid from wealthy philanthropists, artists, intellectuals, philosophers, geologists, zoologists, you name it. The most curious source was Fanny Wright, a fellow Scottish national and well-known, free-thinking feminist of the time. 

His commune in Yellow Springs was one of ten established Owenite communes between 1825 -1830, though dozens were attempted. They were located primarily in the Midwestern plains. Four were in Indiana, two in Ohio, two in New York, and one each in Illinois, and Tennessee. 

Most of these Owenite settlements did not last for more than a few months or up to a couple years, largely due to the members’ inability to produce and maintain enough food and goods to sustain themselves.

There was also an insufferable amount of bickering, competition, forming of alliances to achieve power, and other ugly human tendencies to take resources and control for themselves. All of this, despite the teachings of Owen. 

Members of the communes often disappeared without a trace, leaving behind their long split-log homes with communal living spaces. Still, they left a profound impression on the people who continued to carry the torch, as a sort of “if you build it they will come” parable. 

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Utopian dreamers like the Owenites were not an isolated or special phenomena in the US. Well-intentioned reformers like the Memnonia Institute and countless other Utopian societies around the country have always been set to the task, but never seem to last very long. One surprising exception seems to be and The Vale in Yellow Springs.

With all the public craze for the healing waters and the completion of the defunct Little Miami Railroad in 1846, many restaurants, hotels, inns, several churches, a sawmill, granary, general stores, and even the humble beginnings of Antioch College served over 1,300 residents of Yellow Springs as early as the 1850s and into the 1880s. 

Abolitionist Moncure D. Conway and his Conway Colony of nearly three dozen free former slaves also settled in Yellow Springs in the early 1860s.

Wheeling Gaunt, a former slave, managed to purchase his freedom and quite a lot of land that is now Gaunt Park, though his living will was that any rent collected on the land be used to support poor widows in the village.

To this day, the town takes pride in a tradition of delivering care packages to widows each Christmas. 

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Yellow Springs continued to grow steadily into the next century largely due to the draw of Antioch College, which is now independently owned and has not been affiliated with any religious sect since 1852.

Both the townspeople and Antioch College fell under suspicion and were questioned for Communist sympathies and left wing politics, to which the college President affirmed the institution’s belief in the American tradition of freedom and the right to hear and investigate all sides of any question. 

The same prevailing attitude carried into the time of the Civil Rights Movement, the Anti-War Movement, and LGBTQ+ equality, where village residents drafted and voted in progressive policies that supported their fierce, radical defense of personal freedom and expression, acceptance and rights, without discrimination. 

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Yellow Springs appears to have always been a haven for dreamers, open minds, radicals, and anyone with a focus on social justice and progress.

The Yellow Springs Community Council published a book called Why They Came in 1956 but I could only find it (with a long waitlist) on loan from the town’s public library. 

Notorious people like John Lithgow, Dave Chappelle, and Mary Loritz of the Young People’s Socialist League are from Yellow Springs or spent time living there. With its growing reputation for a village of non-commercial local businesses, Yellow Springs continues to grow.

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Shopping is not really my thing, but that’s what you do in Yellow Springs.  There are over 50 independent shops primarily on Dayton Street to the north, branching off along Corry Street and Xenia Avenue. extending down to Glen Street. 

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Most of these shops center around a grassy courtyard lawn called King’s Yard. 

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Parking is mostly free and easy to come by if you don’t mind walking a couple blocks. 

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Some of my favourite places are House of Ravenwood, Dark Star Books, and Epic Book Shop.

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I enjoyed visiting Toxic Beauty Records and browsing its huge collection of posters, vinyl, and general nostalgia.  

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Kismet & Pangaea Trading Company and the Tibet Bazaar (website looks sus!) are boutique shops with accessories, clothing, and decor from around the world. 

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Urban Handmade with its slogan “the revolution will not be mass produced” and Village Artisans cooperative were two of the most diverse shops. 

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Rock Around the Clark is a fun store that sells natural wares like fossils, trilobites, pre-historic animal teeth and bones. Cresco Labs is your place for CBD and cannabis products, if that’s your bag, baby. 
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Little Art Theatre with its vibrant murals has been a village staple since 1929. It specializes in independent, rare, foreign, and some mainstream films and can be rented for private events.

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I love the painted ceilings and other surfaces of the theatre.

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There are so many locally-sourced, organic, diverse restaurants in Yellow Springs. 

Dino’s Cappuccinos serves a great cuppa and sells merchandise and grounds by the pound. 

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Yellow Springs Brewery, Peaches Bar & Grill, and Gulch Saloon are only a few of the bars, breweries, taverns, and pubs of Yellow Springs. 

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Boots on the Ground
For such a small village, Yellow Springs has some truly impressive non-profits and other community organizations. Just a few that caught my interest include:

Feminist Health Fund is a non-profit that provides assistance with medical expenses during hardship.

The League of Women Voters (open equally to men) is a nonpartisan political organization with a mission that “encourages the informed and active participation of citizens in government, works to increase understanding of major public policy issues, and influences public policy through education and advocacy.”

Green Environmental Coalition is a grassroots advocate for the environment with a focus on clean water, toxic chemical reductions, and preventing urban sprawl.

Tecumseh Land Preservation Association is a member-supported nonprofit conservation organization set to preserve agricultural land, natural areas, water resources, and historic sites in voluntary cooperation with area landowners.  

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Yellow Springs Historical Society is an abundant source for all things Greene County, and they sponsor/host many events through the year. 

I also learned that Yellow Springs hosts its own branch of Porchfest, a wonderful festival I recently attended in Oakhurst/Decature near Atlanta, Georgia. 

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Poets, orators, artists, buskers, and street performers are known to kick it and practice their crafts out in front of shops or in one of the dozens of landscaped alleyways and tiny gardens downtown.

These dudes were shredding some metal riffs. 

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I really hate the word whimsical but it might be most appropriate to describe some of the art and features of the Yellow Springs village. 

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Even its trash bins and benches are decorated with mosaic tiles and paintings of nature and animals. 

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Outdoor Excursions
Our visit to Yellow Springs was not long enough to allow time for hiking, but I learned a lot about the area’s natural offerings.

The Women’s Park & Gardens are part of the Women’s History Project of Greene County that commemorates women of the Greene County and their achievements along the Little Miami Bike Trail across from Antioch College. 

Yellow Springs Outdoor is an organization the compiles info about local parks, trails, waterways, routes, weather, and safety, and the storefront sells affordable outfitting.

Glen Helen Nature Preserve holds over 1,000 acres for hiking, birdwatching, searching for wildflowers, and connects to a trail network of more than 25 miles. 

John Bryan State Park has over 750 acres, nine trails, mountain biking trails, rock climbing features, fishing areas, kayaking, canoeing, picnic areas, camping, and some of the trails are accessible by wheelchair. 

The Little Miami Scenic Bike/Hike Trails are popular with roller skaters, running from Urbana all the way to Cincinnati. It is part of one of the largest networks of paved trails in the US.  

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Ask a local what to do here and they will likely mention a visit to Young’s Jersey Dairy for homemade ice cream & cheese, a bakery and two restaurants, mini golf, batting cage, a petting zoo, and other activities. 

Last but not least, visit the historic community of Clifton, the Clifton Gorge Nature Preserve, the Shoebox Theatre, the Clifton Opera House, and the Historic Clifton Mill & Restaurant just couple miles away from Yellow Springs.

In the area for a while? Follow me to Tipp City’s Mum Festival, downtown Tipp City, or Dayton! (blogs in progress)

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