Thursday, August 07, 2003

Hebron Crossroads 8-10-03
By Jeff Gill

There’s a figure from Newark’s history who passed through our Hebron Crossroads many times, needing some special attention from all corners of Licking County.
Israel Dille, whose portrait by local legend Amzi Godden hangs in the Sherwood-Davidson House along the Licking County Historical Society row on 7th Street in Newark, was born near the beginning point for our recent bicentennial wagon train, at Dille’s Bottom near Martin’s Ferry. He came into this world about the same time as Ohio became a state, in 1802, and was buried in Cedar Hill Cemetery after his death in Washington DC in 1874. His monument. . .well, more about that later.
From a pioneer family in the Cleveland area and teaching in the Somerset vicinity, Israel apprenticed to the law, and shortly after moved to become one the first true citizens of Licking County’s new seat of government. He was an early county commissioner, a mayor of Newark, held a variety of other county offices, and was the leading light in the first "board of education" in the county in 1848, and his daughter Anna was the first graduate of Newark schools in 1853.
He helped to bring the now 150 year old Ohio State Fair to Licking County, put on within the vast embrace of the Great Circle earthworks now at the entrance to Newark Earthworks State Memorial. It is still known to some old-timers as "the Fairgrounds Circle" since it was the county fair grounds for many years afterwards.
One of the organizers of the nascent Republican Party, then a new "third" party on the American scene, he led the movement to support freedom for slaves, education for all, and equality of opportunity for everyone (including his daughters). He lost his only son, William, in the Civil War, and served in our nation’s capital from the Lincoln administration to the time of his death.
An elderly man by the standards of his day in DC, he was notably healthy and active, and caught the attention of fellow amateur scientists, antiquarians, and lovers of literature, including Joseph Henry, the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, and poet Walt Whitman, who noted with sorrow Dille’s sudden death in his letters.
I was remembering Israel Dille a few weeks ago when I saw an article in "The Atlantic Monthly" about Whitman which references a significant but little known prose work of his called "Democratic Vistas." Finding it on line and reading the whole, again I ran into Mr. Dille, who is unmistakably described in the essay as a respected friend and perceptive political analyst.
Clearly, we much to be proud of with someone like Dille in our local history (and I haven’t told the half of it!); he was known by his contemporaries as an authority on archaeology, botany, geology, and meterology (keeping Licking County’s first systematic weather records).
But Israel himself, a good Episcopalian, wasn’t given to public displays, and in fact ordered that his grave site, on the highest spot in Cedar Hill (which he was influential in establishing) be marked with no gravestone at all. There’s an echo here of Christopher Wren, architect of St. Paul’s cathedral: "If you desire to see his monument, look around."
Not long ago, though, there was on the grounds of the county courthouse a plaque noting that, long before Dawes Arboretum, there was on the Courthouse Square a "Newark Botanic Gardens," an extension of the many and varied plantings once surrounding his home just north of where Hudson and St. Clair now intersect. Dille established these gardens during his term as mayor as another silent gift to all of Licking County, but the marker was discreetly maintained as one place the citizens would see this illustrious name preserved.
Somehow, a few years back, it disappeared. Could it be returned or restored? Let’s think about it, as we mull over our patriotic reflections this bicentennial year.

Dille, with his forward looking and advanced thinking approach to public policy, was on my mind recently as Congress had a hissy-fit over a program that clearly not a one of them understood. I can just see the twinkle Amzi Godden tried to capture in his marvelous portrait (you really should go see it) as Dille might read through the idea of a "forecasting marketplace" for the finest minds of the country to place bets on likely future events.
Then he’d log on to the internet and click on to see how his forecasts were doing in attracting speculation and investment. That’s right, the very thing senators and representatives derided as "bizarre foolishness" has one of the few self-supporting presences on the web, started by two of the founders of Wired Magazine and the Whole Earth Review. We need some Israel Dille’s in public life again, that’s for sure.

Astronomy and deep time would have sparked Dille’s twinkle as well; late at night, look to the southwest to see Mars as close as it’s been in 60,000 years (paging Dr. Wells, attention, H.G. Wells, your agent is calling). Bright and fiery, even a good pair of binoculars will reveal some green shot through the orange background, and at the right angle, a jaunty cap of white at the north pole. We’ll be celebrating Ohio’s quadricentennial before Mars is anywhere near this close again (AD 2200 or so), so go check the Red Planet out tonight.
The Perseid meteor shower is this weekend, but a full moon all night Aug. 12 is right on top of the peak activity evening, so we won’t have much to record in the make a wish department. Just salute the boundless curiosity and creativity of Licking County pioneers as you gaze at the heavens this weekend.

Jeff Gill is pastor of Hebron Christian Church; he has a pair of bionculars and isn’t afraid to use ‘em! If you have news to use, just e-mail or call 928-4066.