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Paying Tribute to Dan Emmett at 200

Written by James K Gibson

The folks at our Museum had been looking forward to October 29, 2015, for a long time. It's not just every day that any historical society has the opportunity to celebrate the 200th birthday anniversary of its best-known native citizen.
And even though we experienced a tragic fire and other distractions along the way, we had a wonderful celebration for Uncle Dan on a very windy afternoon, when our Historical Society members and friends were joined by Chamber of Commerce Ambassadors and Director, Carol Grubaugh, along with Mike Peetee and his singing group Elixir, and especially the more than 50 third graders from Dan Emmett School and their teachers, Janet Jones and Kyle Clinedinst, who added just the right touch to a remarkable 200th birthday celebration.

When little Daniel Decatur Emmett was born two centuries ago, the town of Mount Vernon, Ohio, was just ten years old and the United States of America, not yet 40 years old, was nearing the end of its second war with England, known as the War of 1812. It would be quite a few years before there would be a new foundry here operated by brothers Charles and Elias Cooper, or even a village nearby called Gambier or a college called Kenyon located in Knox County.
But when Emmett retired here in April, 1888, after his long and successful career in America's musical theater, he found many changes in his hometown. As Ogden Wintermute described it:
"After breakfast he walked down Main Street, hungry to see again the familiar landmarks of his childhood. On the site of Ben Butler's Tavern was the town Racket Store. The old Kenyon House [hotel] had been replaced by a three-story building called Kirk Hall. The old Bergin House, which had been a popular stagecoach stop, was still standing but in a bad state of repair. A cluster of old buildings, housing a dozen or more small businesses and a town market, now known as the Jones Block, was the only nostalgic sight on the public square. The Woodward Opera House was advertising its annual booking of Uncle Tom's Cabin. However, his interests were no longer in the theater. In spite of his dignified bearing, accentuated by his black broadrimmed hat, his frock coat, and his cane, to all who went by he was a mere stranger. He searched every face for some gleam of recognition, but his old friends had seemingly all passed on."
"Later that day he walked out the old Mansfield-Mount Vernon stagecoach road to the site of his grandfather's farm. The old house was no longer standing; he walked through the woods and along the stream, reliving the happy days of his childhood. . . . However, he wanted a home of his own. Finally, on July 5, 1888, he was able to buy an acre of land adjoining the old home farm. After this transaction had been completed, he immediately set about constructing a cabin of plain, broad, ship-lap boards. At first, the cabin consisted of one large room. Later partitions were added to form a living room, kitchen, and bedroom. He was very particular about building a good chimney and having bookshelves. Since Emmett had always liked to work with wood, it was no great task for him to do all this work himself. Some odds and ends of furniture he had sent from Chicago; at his sister's home [at 305 East High St.] he unearthed some old minstrel chairs he had made in the forties. To these he added a small cook stove, kitchen utensils, and cutlery. Although it was a humble cabin, Uncle Dan was completely happy and carefree. His pets were a brood of chickens, and his recreation, long walks in the woods and work in his garden patch."

It was indeed our pleasure to remember Dan Emmett on his historic 200th birthday. The day was breezy and beautiful. The speeches were sincere and blessedly brief. The cakes were gaily decorated and enjoyed by all.
And the highlight of it all was having more than 50 young people from the school, named years ago in his honor and located just a stone's throw from that home he built himself and where he spent his happy retirement years, singing his favorite composition, Ol' Dan Tucker.
We think Dan would have enjoyed the day, too.

Reference: H. Ogden Wintermute, Daniel Decatur Emmett. Columbus, Ohio: Heer Printing Co., 1955.

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Knox County Historical Society

875 Harcourt Road
Mount Vernon, OH 43050

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