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Otterbein University first opened its doors in Westerville on September 1, 1847. This blog retells the founding story with the intent of re-emphasizing the contributions of a Westerville village resident and a Pickaway County farm family. The discovery of some new information along the way was a bonus.
The Founding Story
Westerville, Ohio, was incorporated in 1858 (legal entity with a charter received from the state), but it was actually established in 1839. In that year, brothers Matthew and Peter Westervelt donated a portion of their land near the banks of Alum Creek for the establishment of Blendon Young Men’s Seminary, a preparatory school sponsored by the Methodist Episcopal Church. To support the school, the land next to it was platted (divided) into lots to be sold for housing thus creating a village. Local carpenter Randall Russell Arnold, credited by historians with building the first frame dwelling in the area, was tapped by Matthew Westervelt to perform this task. A post office was soon desired. Arnold took on this task as well and sought the assistance of his friend “Dr. Vance”, postmaster of nearby Galena, where Randall had previously lived. The petition for a post office required a name for the location and together they selected Westerville in recognition of Matthew, Peter, and third brother William Westervelt. The petition was accepted and in 1840 Westerville had a post office.
Blendon Young Men’s Seminary struggled almost from the start. The Methodists soon turned their attention toward establishing a college just eighteen miles away in Delaware, and Ohio Wesleyan opened there in 1842. The competition for students was just too great and Blendon folded in 1844. The campus consisted of two buildings: a three-story brick dormitory and a frame building containing a chapel, library and three recitation rooms. Twelve trustees (Randall Arnold included) who held the title to the property were now responsible for its debt of $1300.
In the fall of 1846, Randall Arnold rode his horse twenty miles to a downtown Columbus clothing store. There he overheard two men discussing the need for the United Brethren Church in Christ to open its very first college to keep pace with other denominations that were already well underway in this endeavor. History sources indicate it was owned by Harvey Coit though none of the sources identified a store location. Fortunately, The Columbus Dispatch has been digitized. A search led to an advertisement with a street address. Additional online resources of old town maps, photographs and just basic Googling of key words identified a building on South High Street. In 1851, in this same large building, Simon Lazarus opened what became known as the F & R Lazarus Company. Thus, a fun find…a building of great significance to Central Ohio history though it no longer stands. Lazarus would eventually outgrow this space and build what became a mammoth flagship department store on the opposite corner same side of the street.
Arnold raced back to Westerville and rallied leading citizens to discuss what he had overheard. Matthew Westervelt and Dr. George W.H. Landon were appointed to attend a meeting of the Scioto Conference of the United Brethren Church in Christ at Bethlehem Church near Ashville in Pickaway County. There they presented their proposal to sell the Blendon campus for $1300. Circleville or Dayton had previously been established by the Church as the preferred choice for location of a college. When representatives of the Church came to Westerville on an inspection tour, the offer was immediately accepted. A purchasing team consisting of Reverend Lewis Davis, Jonathan Dresbach and William Hanby completed the transaction. They also became the first trustees and held their founding meeting in Westerville on April 26, 1847. Otterbein was selected as the name in honor of United Brethren Church founder Philip William Otterbein. It opened the following September 1 as an academy with a principal. Eight students were there that first day, but by year’s end enrollment had reached 52 men and 29 women. At that time only one other institution in the United States, Oberlin College, was open to women. Otterbein’s being second-in-the-nation to admit women is still a proudly published fact.
Randall Rice Arnold of Westerville
As significant as Randall Arnold was to the establishment of Westerville and Otterbein University, his contribution to this history has left the public eye. Randall passed away in 1898 at age 92 and was buried, per his obituary, at Jameson Cemetery (now called Pioneer Cemetery) on Westerville’s south side. His grave is likely beside the graves of his first wife and son who have gravestones; Randall has none and the cemetery roster is missing his name. A mystery yet to be solved…he passed away in the house of his daughter and son-in-law, John Henry and Ida Arnold Evans, on Vine Street. That house remains unidentified.
The only permanent tribute to Randall Arnold is an alley named after him that runs off North Vine Street between East Broadway and Logan Avenues. The City of Westerville’s website lists the Uptown alleys/namesakes and states the following: “Since alley names did not appear in Council legislation before 1966, it is believed the naming convention is related to the 100th anniversary of the City in 1958, the 100th anniversary of the start of the Civil War in 1960, and/or the event of the Village of Westerville becoming the City of Westerville in 1964.” It sounds like that recognition of 62 years ago was without much fanfare, and it’s doubtful anyone looking up at the Arnold Alley sign today knows who Arnold is.
Randall Rice Arnold’s years in Westerville (1825-1898) include:
- Built the first frame house in the village.
- Surveyed and platted Westerville in 1839.
- Was a founding trustee of Blendon Young Men’s Seminary in 1839 and one of twelve men who financed and held title to the property.
- Successfully co-petitioned the U.S. Postmaster General to establish a post office for Westerville in 1840.
- Co-creator of the name Westerville for the village. Unfortunately, there is no record of his co-petitioner/co-creator friend “Dr. Vance” as confirmed by historical societies in Delaware County, local cemeteries, the U.S. Postal Service and other sources.
- In the fall of 1846 in Columbus overheard two men at a Columbus clothing store discussing the need for a denominational institution of higher education to keep pace with other church denominations. Returns home, inspires key citizens…and Otterbein University is established in Westerville as a result.
- Recruited a local militia company during the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848.
- Was a Justice of the Peace for over 50 of his 92 years and thus was referred to as Squire Arnold in recorded history (squire being a term, years ago, given to a justice of the peace).
- Was one of a committee of five who petitioned to have Westerville incorporated in 1858. Professor John Haywood was named first mayor in 1858. In his article Early History of Westerville that appeared in the June 1897 issue of the Otterbein Aegis, he referred to Randall Arnold as “a leading citizen of Westerville.”
- Served six years as mayor from 1860 to 1866.
- Wrote extensively about the history of townships surrounding Westerville. These lengthy handwritten histories are archived at the Westerville History Museum. In his book Our Ancestors of the Westerville Area: A Genealogical History, Otterbein Professor Harold Hancock provided the following recollection of a village resident. “He was possessed of an unusual degree of intelligence and was a contributor to the newspapers. He gathered up many facts connected with the early settlement of Ohio and wrote a most interesting series of articles about pioneer life in the state.”
The Glenn and Dolly Hay Family of Pickaway County
Bethlehem Church, site of Otterbein’s founding, was a frame structure constructed in 1840 and was in use until 1880. At closure, possession changed hands to the township trustees who had no use for the building. The adjacent cemetery was relocated and the former Bethlehem Church was sold to Edson Marberger for $16, the cost of the relocation. Sold again, new owners Glenn and Dolly Hay used the old church as a farm implement shed until razing it.
As part of its 100th anniversary celebration in 1947, the Otterbein and the Southeastern Conference of the United Brethren Church proposed acquiring the old church site and placing a marker (boulder with a bronze plaque) as the centerpiece of a small roadside park. The Hays agreed to this, and the transaction was completed at the courthouse in Circleville. At some point, maintenance became an issue and the land was returned to the Hay family. In 2022, the year of this blog, Otterbein is again celebrating…this time its 175th year. There is another milestone that should be celebrated this year as well. For 75 of these 175 years, this lonely boulder along a rural country road in Pickaway County has been under the watchful eye of the same farm family who today, at their own expense, maintain the manicured expanse of lawn upon which it rests. Four grandchildren of Glenn and Dolly Hay agreed to meet for a picture this past June, and it appears in the photo section below. A big surprise was that one of these grandchildren is a 1975 graduate of Otterbein!
Thoughts…can we do better?
There is a timeline of Otterbein University history displayed on the third floor of Roush Hall. The unique founding needs recognized in this history display: the clothing store conversation and the role of RR Arnold, Bethlehem Church, the Hay family and the boulder marker. There’s room for another history panel in the third-floor hallway. There’s room for a second marker, too…this one at Jameson/Pioneer Cemetery. Perhaps a few local historians and perhaps a homeowner or two whose houses touch Arnold Alley know who Randall Arnold was, but that’s likely it. Randall’s resume speaks for itself.
I would like to thank the following individuals for their assistance in contributing to this blog: Stephen Grinch, Otterbein University Archivist; the grandchildren of Glenn and Dolly Hay (Joy Hay Hoover, Kay Hay, Larry Hay, Kathy Beers Studebaker); Bob Hines, Ohio’s Small Town Museum, Ashville; Darlene Weaver, Pickaway County Historical and Genealogical Library.
Published 7/23/2022. Don Foster, Otterbein Class of 1973. email@example.com
Ah, Don Foster, you’ve done it again – written an excellent informative well-documented illustrated article on Westerville and Otterbein history. Many thanks. Sara Elberfeld Deever
Great blog! So nice that Randall Arnold finally got credit where due! Also the Hay family! Have they read your blog yet? They will be honored to receive the recognition. What a coincidence that one is an Otterbein grad. How many other streets and alleys in Westerville are named after important people that we know nothing about? Maybe a future blog? Keep up the excellent history lessons, always good to find out more lost stories of Westerville’s past!
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Thanks, Janet!! I may do a blog on the alley names eventually.
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I love the idea of a blog on the alley names as well. You already have identified 2 of them, Arnold Alley and Karg Alley. Another excellent blog!
And you suggested the alley blog!
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