The Clifton & Ludlow Crossroads of the 1890s

By Geoff Gelke, The History Buffs

This article was first published in the Summer 2022 Clifton Chronicle.

What could be more iconic to Clifton than the intersection of Clifton and Ludlow avenues?  It wasn’t always as it appears today. Let’s time-travel corner to corner:

Cincinnati Gas and Coke Company, office and agent’s home

The Southwest Corner: The beautiful Beaux Arts Firehouse No. 34 was built in 1906, designed by architect Harry Hake to house the fire vehicles and horses serving Clifton. The earlier firehouse had been included in the town hall/school complex located at Clifton and Central (now McAlpin) avenues. The complex was becoming so run down that Mr. Balsch – resident of the grand McDonald mansion next door – complained that he wouldn’t send his son there. Hence the impetus to build a new school in 1905, and a new firehouse in 1906. To relocate the firehouse to Clifton and Ludlow, an 1883 building designed by famed architect Samuel Hannaford was demolished. The Hannaford structure had been home to the Cincinnati Gas & Coke Company and its district agent George Dury and family.

The Northwest Corner:  The three-story commercial red brick building dates to the 1880s, when attorney Joseph Bley’s offices were on the first floor. Soon after came Adolf Meyer’s grocery store with modifications to the first floor exterior into the commercial appearance of today, with Meyer’s initials above a corner front door. The grocery was succeeded for decades by Dow Drugs until Adrian Durban Florist settled into their remarkably colorful shop.

The Northeast Corner: Built in the 1880s as a drug store for Byrne and Company Drugs with apartments above, this handsome Dutch Colonial building later housed Stier Drugs in 1907. Modernizations to the store’s exterior are reflected in the recently restored Art Deco logo. Stier thrived into the 1950s before finally transitioning in 1966 to our famed Skyline Chili parlor. 

The Southeast Corner: The Diggs Fountain and Burnet Woods trailhead at the foot of the hill were not always there. Examine the old 1891 property lines map – this area was full of buildings! The home and stables of road contractor Thomas J. Howard were accompanied by at least six additional residences leading up to the park’s entrance on Brookline. One resident of note was Frederick Bissinger, the famous candy manufacturer. Around 1905 to 1907, Cincinnati Parks purchased and rezoned this triangular-shaped four-acre parcel. Down went the buildings and in went the plantings! An 1870s gift of woodlands made to the city from Clifton barons Robert Burnet and William Groesbeck, the parkland honored patriarch and Cincinnati icon Jacob Burnet. Burnet Woods originally covered 170 acres, whittled to about half that by the turn of the century by an ever-expanding University of Cincinnati campus. Today Burnet Woods covers about 90 acres. Cincinnati Parks made up for the loss of greenspace elsewhere in their system at other properties, including Ault Park.

Map of Clifton and Ludlow avenues in 1891

A Treasury of Millstones

By Geoff Gelke, The History Bluffs

This article was first published in the Summer 2022 Clifton Chronicle.

Halfway down the northern curve of Clifton Avenue resides Dr.Thurman Henderson in “Shady Side,” a splendid Italianate mansion built in 1851 by Joseph Clarkson Ringwalt, successful Cincinnati merchant. The hilltop residence is embraced by woodland that, in the 19th century, included a “pretty lakelet” formed by damming the ravine behind the home. Replete with select trees and foliage, the property enjoyed raves in Sydney Maxwell’s 1870 publication Suburbs of Cincinnati. One can imagine the Ringwalts’ pleasure, swimming for over fifty-five years within their private fairyland forest!

Pictured is an edge-roller millstone, part of 18th century machinery used to crush grain. Millstones were found near a home in Clifton and donated to Clifton Town Meeting in 2022. Some were moved to Clifton Plaza for all to see.

Today, Dr. Henderson – a renowned physicist, inventor, engineer and scientist – continues to enjoy vestiges of his property’s past grandeur. He was delighted to recently understand details that formerly eluded comprehension – dozens of 24- to 40-inch-wide round and flat stones, all hiding in plain sight throughout the grounds. Eighteenth century millstones!

These probably came from the 1791 Irwin Mill – a grist mill built along the Mill Creek at the bottom of Clifton Avenue (called Irwin Mill Road until 1848.) The stones are classified as “edge-roller” type, engineered to roll on their wide edge surfaces around a large flat stone. Connected to a center drive shaft, the wheels rolled in circles, crushing grain spread beneath them. The grooves on the edges facilitated the movement of ground grain out to a deep circular pan where the flour was collected and bagged. More than one millstone could be driven by the center shaft, powered by gigantic overhead wooden gears, which were rotated by a waterwheel turning in the creek water’s flow. In periods of drought, the hydraulic flow was assured by a nearby “mill pond” via water channeled downhill in a “race run” (wooden trough). Such simple grist mills were typical in wilderness times when most millstones in America came from France or England, perhaps accompanied by the huge wooden gearing which allowed frontier mills to be constructed quickly.

Much to the disappointment of William Irwin, his mill was eclipsed by the 1830s when the Miami & Erie Canal came through the valley. Among the ruins would have been piles of used millstones, just waiting to be discovered by Mr. Ringwalt and recognized for their potential as pavers. Scores of them were set in place throughout his estate as stepping stones down into the ravine through the woods on the way to the pond. The millstones now protrude irregularly from the ground, shifted by 150 years of erosion.

Thanks to the generosity of Dr. Henderson, visitors to Clifton can now view and touch some of these millstones and imagine them at work in 1791, grinding flour to bake the bread of Clifton’s first farmers.  Could these be our community’s oldest relics?