ALLEN COUNTY — By 1938 about all that remained of Hartford was a small, weed-choked cemetery on a high west bank of the Auglaize River, overlooking the fields where the town had once been.
That same year, Albert Guy Keith, who as a youth had roamed those fields, recalled the cemetery in a letter to the Allen County Historical Society.
“It was not very well known, for it stood back from the road, but the neighboring residents knew it was there. It was much neglected and said to be snaky by daytime and the dance ground of ghosts at night,” Keith wrote. “Indeed, I have seen ghosts there in the daytime, and I had much rather have met a rattlesnake or a seven-foot blue racer.”
Among those buried in the tiny cemetery are three veterans of the war of 1812, including Jacob Harter, who leased land in the area to Johnny Appleseed, and his son John Harter, who along with Amos Evans founded Hartford in 1835.
However, long before surveyor Hamilton Davis began marking out the first 44 lots of Hartford in 1835, there had been a settlement there. According to a story by Charles Ernest Robison in a 1964 issue of the Allen County Reporter, T.E. Cunningham, a local attorney and newspaper owner, told the Allen County Pioneer Association in September 1871 that “a settlement was commenced by whites” as early as 1817 “in the neighborhood of where once stood the village of Hartford.” Other accounts claim the site was a supply point for early settlers and that a tannery and sawmill were there.
Hartford was platted Sept. 23, 1835, west of and adjacent to “old Hartford,” Robison wrote. The same year the first of three proposed alignments were laid out for the Miami and Erie Canal, which would connect Lake Erie at Toledo with the Ohio River at Cincinnati. Of these alignments, Robison noted, the most favorable seemed to be the first, which followed the west side of the Auglaize River.
“Several individuals, attempting to outguess the canal engineers, hastened to plat towns on this hoped-for route,” Robison wrote. “Of these dream towns, only Hartford was to progress beyond the platting stage. The prospects evidently continued bright, for on June 27, 1836, the partners added an addition of 150 lots to the original, making a total of 194 lots, all of which were surveyed by H. Davison, surveyor of Allen County.”
An early plat map shows the town pushed up against the Auglaize River on the east with the Defiance Road as its Main Street. Other streets included Canal, Van Buren, Auglaize, Water, High, South and Jackson streets. Where Main Street intersected Jackson Street was a town square. At the foot of Jackson Street, on the river, was the town cemetery.
Hartford apparently showed enough early promise that a town called Austria was laid out immediately north of it in 1838. The plans for Austria included a “factory commons” along the Auglaize River, local surveyor and historian Mike Buettner noted in a 2014 story in the Allen County Reporter.
Early in 1839 Hartford became Gallatin, the name change apparently made to avoid confusion with another town named Hartford in Trumbull County. Most people, however, continued to refer to the town as Hartford.
The first lot, according to Robison, was purchased by Margaret Marshall for $100, “a price never again obtained.” Most subsequent sales were for anywhere from $12 to $25. “Seemingly no stampede developed in selling Gallatin lots, although it must be remembered that the deeds recorded were probably far outnumbered by the deeds never recorded,” Robison wrote.
In 1840, town co-founder Evans, who had moved to Defiance, sold a block of 65 lots to his partner Harter, Robison wrote, adding that “perhaps he had second thoughts about this deal, for in 1841, he bought back six lots from his former partner.”
In 1837, according to a county auditor’s document, the town was comprised of five dwellings, two stores and two taverns. A post office was established in October 1839 but discontinued in 1851. There also was a log house used as a church.
“The census of 1840 lists the inhabitants of Gallatin as follows: Heads of families — Charles Marshall, John Harter, Eli Peterson, Felix Devore, William Woolery, Solomon Carr, Aaron Harter, George W. Cochran, and William Berryman; 26 males (including the family heads) and 33 females — a total of 59 inhabitants,” Robison wrote.
Royal Wells Smith, the son of a Unitarian minister, apparently was not impressed by any of them, or the town.
On Aug. 10, 1843, Smith wrote his family in Massachusetts: “I was fortunate to obtain a situation, though quite an indifferent one, being located in a ‘back woods’ place about 50 miles from Troy where I am literally buried alive — having no society that I can enjoy — no social, literary or religious privileges at all, hear no preaching except now and then an ignorant ass of a Methodist officiates in a Log School House nearby and the eloquence they pour forth to the astounding multitude I should think, certainly, would ‘astonish devils.’ The other Sabbath I attended a camp meeting about 15 miles from this place, a description of which, had I the pen of a Dickens or Irving, I might do justice, but as I have not, I will only say that it was quite interesting, as well as novel — I thought I had found ignorance in New York State but that place is certainly enlightened compared to this …”
Smith would soon be forced to find another place to look down on. By the time of his letter it was evident the canal would not pass through Hartford, but instead be located two miles west, passing through the newly platted village of Spencerville.
“The village of Hartford, upon the completion of the canal, ceased to exist, and Spencerville dates its growth from that time, many of the citizens having settled in the latter village,” Dr. J.C. Campbell, who came to Spencerville in 1851, wrote in an 1885 history of Allen County. A man named Squire Mills, who helped building the canal, is quoted in a 1906 interview as saying Hartford/Gallatin was “a ‘dead one’ quickly. Its inhabitants flocked to the new town site and built Spencerville.”
“From this time on the lots changed hands in blocks and the lots in these blocks became more numerous with every passing year,” Robison wrote. “Unpaid taxes mounted up; the auditor’s books show page after page of Hartford lots listed as ‘Owner-unknown.’”
“By 1856,” Buettner wrote, “every lot of the town was in the name of William Moorman, and the promises once foreseen for Hartford were now being enjoyed in the canal town of Spencerville, which was platted in 1844.”
Johnzy Keith, Albert Guy Keith’s grandfather, purchased the village site from Moorman in 1865.
In a 1913 court document, 63-year-old Robert Brooks wrote that he had lived “just west of the old town of Hartford all his lifetime” and that “the town of Hartford ceased to exist as a village more than 50 years ago and that the land formerly platted and occupied as a town … has been cultivated as farm land for the past 15 years or more and that no part of said town of Hartford is now to be seen.”
Reach Greg Hoersten at firstname.lastname@example.org.